Town’s finances don’t meet standards

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Town Manager Justin VanDongen is reviewing the town’s financial records from the previous five years to see if he can make sense of them.

Five months into his stint as town manager, VanDongen is unable to “definitively say what the financial situation of the town is,” he told selectmen last week.

“We’ve had a lot of — what I’ve said before is — a lack of caring at a lot of levels as to what the financial position of the town was,” VanDongen said to the board.

In previous selectmen’s meetings, VanDongen has noted there are places within the budget where revenues are recorded more than once. More recently. he has mentioned a misuse of capital improvement accounts. Records show these may have been used as expense accounts rather than on capital improvement projects.

“So we’ve been talking a lot about changing the way we do accounting,” VanDongen said, referring to town staff members who work with finance, “to make sure that we are properly expressing the revenues as revenues and the expenses as expenses and the accounts that we have are being utilized in a way that meets the standards for government accounting.

“Most of the conversations we’ve had, I understand that this is the way things had been done,” he continued. “But, we’re not doing it that way any more.”

In previous reports to selectmen, VanDongen expressed that the staff may need more training on the municipal software program TRIO. At last week’s meeting he reiterated the need for more training on the program in order to keep clearer records. The town has had the municipal software in place since 2008.

“We use just about every module that it has,” VanDongen told the Islander Monday. The computer software tracks tax billing, real estate collections and lien processes.

Since 2012, there have been at least three different people in charge of the town’s finances. In 2012, Renee Atwater came to work for Southwest Harbor from Hancock County. Tabbetha Lewenham worked for the town from 2009-2016, a portion of those years as the financial director. Lewenham was recently indicted by a Hancock County grand jury on a count of theft by unauthorized taking or transfer from the town. Currently, the town of Southwest Harbor’s finances are managed by Marilyn Lowell.

“The thing I’ve tried to express to Marilyn is, my frustration is not [about] the way she has done things,” VanDongen said to selectmen. “It’s not her fault that nobody has said, ‘this is how I want it done.’ So, I’ve expressed to her that I want to make sure she is on board with the new way and she has expressed that she is.”

In June, VanDongen took the place of former Town Manager Don LaGrange, who had been in the position since 2011. Lagrange was unanimously approved by the board of selectmen for the position after acting as interim town manager for six months. He was the code enforcement officer and plumbing inspector prior to being hired as town manager. Prior to coming to work for Southwest Harbor, most of LaGrange’s work experience was in the private sector.

VanDongen declined to comment on whether he was working with Lagrange to solve the financial confusion.

“It’s of my own volition that I would make some changes and review some things,” he said.

Auditors have already begun work for review of the 2017–18 fiscal year. VanDongen has asked the audit team if they will do some training with town staff in municipal finance recordkeeping. VanDongen said it is not clear how long it will take them to complete the audit.

“I think there might be too many questions about the accounts and about transactions,” VanDongen said.

In the selectmen’s meeting, he explained that the lack of clarity around the finances came when he was asked to provide information to an interested party about an investment policy for the town. VanDongen said he was unable to do it.

“How far back are we trying to get?” Selectman Ryan Donahue asked.

“I’ll be going back at least five years to start,” said VanDongen. “Sometimes figures for the budget were entered twice, just because that was how [staff] was advised to do it… There’s a lot. Hopefully five years is enough.”

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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