Four-Town Refuse District Takes Initiatives to Put Financial Affairs in Better Order

By MANDY LOCKE

Heeding their auditor's stern warnings, the Martha's Vineyard Regional Refuse and Resource Recovery District is doing some financial housekeeping this month.

In the weeks following auditor John J. O'Brien's report of sloppy bookkeeping and incomplete records, the refuse district personnel subcommittee is shuffling administrative staff roles.

After the auditor chastised district leadership for paperwork errors including unsupported vouchers, discarded deposit slips and a meandering paper trail, district bookkeeper Flora Allen stepped down after nearly 15 years in the post.

"Flora's resignation gives us a clean slate and opportunity to bring auditor's bookkeeping recommendations into place," said district chairman Richard Skidmore this week. Ms. Allen offered the district manager a brief letter of resignation in late January.

The personnel subcommittee is currently interviewing executive assistant candidates to take over Ms. Allen's responsibilities.

Last week, district manager Charles Noonan began implementing a new voucher disbursement system aimed to better track vendor account warrant numbers and check numbers.

Pointing to more than two dozen classification errors including unlisted assets and payroll withholding mistakes, the auditor urged the district to contract professional accounting help throughout the fiscal year.

Mr. O'Brien will be interviewing two candidates selected from a pile of applicants for the part-time accounting job.

Controversy has swirled around the district's financial mess over the last nine months. District leadership blamed unexpected capital overages for creating deficits of more than a half million dollars and more than $200,000 in unpaid bills to the district's off-Island waste handler, SEMASS. The audit confirmed the severity of the operation's fiscal problems last month.

How a waste handler continuing to operate in the red can assume more salary obligations became a point of debate during last Thursday's monthly meeting. No one, however, disputed the need for professional accounting assistance.

With the 2004 fiscal year budget already approved and member town assessments already accepted, the district had not planned for additional administrative staff costs. The budgeted salary for Ms. Allen - who had climbed as high on the step ladder as possible - will cover the cost of a new executive assistant and portions of the accountant's salary.

But district leadership postponed a decision regarding increased collection fees. Currently charging $144 per ton of municipal solid waste, the committee already decided to implement a $2 increase per ton beginning July 1. But some committee members urged the committee to adopt the $2 increase immediately and raise the tipping fee an additional $2 on July 1, bringing the total to $148. Mr. Noonan said the district currently charges about $6 less than competitive waste handlers on the Island.

Pointing to the potential mishandling of cash at local drop-off centers, Mr. O'Brien urged the district to completely pull out of the local centers and only accept roll-off bins from West Tisbury and Chilmark.

Some committee members hesitated abandoning local drop-offs but endorsed a system that eliminates the use of cash.

Currently, the district absorbs about $5,000 in bad checks, and Mr. Noonan said that loss would certainly climb if the district disallowed cash payments.

Committee members will discuss the matter further with member town leadership and explore the adoption of mandatory coupon currency.

Upon the auditor's recommendations, Mr. Noonan said he is collecting bids from security companies to install surveillance equipment at the collection booth at the Edgartown transfer station.

But all of these changes require money - money that a chronically cash-strapped district does not have.

"It all comes down to a matter of money," Mr. Skidmore said. "These things can be very expensive, so they may not all happen immediately."

Last month, most towns agreed to pay their annual assessments in quarterly installments rather than twice a year. Mr. Noonan said the new timing of assessments will help the district make bond payments on schedule without dipping into operational revenues.

Following the district's bleak audit report, officials from member towns, namely Chilmark and Edgartown, demanded action plans and assurances that the district will gain control of their financial mess. The district will be asking member towns to approve $1.2 million in borrowing at annual town meetings this spring - funds needed to cover capital expenses at the Chilmark and Edgartown landfills and engineering costs for a construction and demolition debris handling center.

Coming to grips with the work the district must tackle in the months to come, the committee voted to schedule an additional meeting each month.

"I'm most encouraged by the board's willingness to meet twice a month. It ensures that proper attention will be given to all areas of concern," Mr. Skidmore said.

In other business, the district committee will also meet with SEMASS officials in March to discuss the possibility of the off-Island handler taking over operations at the district transfer station.