Vt. citizen auditors giving way to CPAs
By Kevin O’Connor
Staff Writer | March 09,2014
Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo
Weston, population 566, is one of several Vermont towns that voted last week to replace citizen auditors with certified public accountants.
Weston resident elder Sam Lloyd Sr. has witnessed decades of dramatic events at the local Playhouse. Still, the 88-year-old was surprised when town meeting voted this year to “eliminate” its three most accountable members.
Even more shocking, those in the crosshairs proposed it themselves.
“This suggestion came from consensus,” Stuart Duke said for the trio. “We are neophytes.”
Neophytes as elected town auditors, that is. Duke explained the tradition of citizens reviewing local financial records may have worked in the past, but it’s worrisome in the present.
“We recognize even in a town as small as Weston,” he said, “the budget has grown large and complex.”
That’s why the community, population 566, replaced its elected positions with paid professionals.
Voters at town meetings in Brandon, Greensboro, Londonderry, Sharon and Wolcott approved the same change this past week, joining a growing list of Vermont municipalities switching to certified public accountants.
“We’ve had an auditor’s position open for a year and nobody has wanted to fill it, and the two auditors that were doing the accounts do not feel qualified to do it anymore,” Wolcott Assistant Town Clerk Belinda Clegg told voters there.
Ask leaders at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns for perspective and they point to their Handbook for Locally Elected Vermont Auditors.
“The town auditor plays a vital role in preserving the democratic nature of Vermont’s local government by ensuring that local officials are accountable for their expenditures of the taxpayers’ money,” says Chapter 1, titled “The Auditor’s Role.” “It is the auditor’s job to review the accounts of local officials and report the findings directly to the taxpayers for review.”
Then comes Chapter 2, the one Duke read aloud in Weston: “Elimination of the Office of Auditor.”
“Each year, as municipal budgets grow and sources of revenue become more diverse, the task of auditing municipal financial records becomes more difficult,” it says. “Presently, there is no legal requirement that locally elected auditors have any education or experience in bookkeeping or accounting. As a result, reliance upon locally elected auditors can sometimes create a false sense of municipal financial security.”
State law permits municipalities to cut the position of auditor and contract with a licensed certified public accountant to complete an annual financial audit of government funds.
Outgoing Weston Town Clerk and Treasurer Jean DeCell sees value in the switch.
“Believe me, you want people with qualifications doing an audit,” she told residents Tuesday. “There are state rules and regulations. The professionals are very knowledgeable. I feel they protect the town.”
Select Board Chairman Denis Benson disagreed.
“I would think in a town like Weston, with a higher number of retired executives, they would step up to the plate and do the audit,” he said.
Other communities voiced similar comments. Officials in Townshend, population 1,232, had hoped residents would approve a change.
“As the world becomes more complicated it becomes more and more difficult for the layman to keep up with all the mandates, regulations and processes involved in governing a municipality,” the Select Board wrote in this month’s annual report. “It seems prudent for the town to consider hiring a town manager, professional lister and auditor.”
Townshend residents, however, decided to maintain the status quo.
Statewide, they’re in the minority. Greensboro, population 762, replaced its auditor with a CPA by a vote of 108 to 4. Brandon, population 3,966, eliminated not only its auditors but also its listers.
The League of Cities and Towns expects the debate to continue. That’s why it spells out all the specifics in a handbook available on its website, www.vlct.org.
“The terms of office of the auditors who are in office when the town votes to eliminate the office will expire on the 45th day after the vote,” it says, “or on the date when the Select Board first contracts with a public accountant, whichever happens first.”
That means Weston’s trio still has time in the posts — and on the planet. As Lloyd, a longtime thespian, capped town meeting with comedic flourish: “I’m very relieved we won’t be eliminating Stuart Duke himself.”