Thursday, August 18, 2016

A word about warrants

fair warning: this one will get wonkish!
As I mentioned in my agenda preview, there's an item on the agenda for today's Worcester School Committee that brings up something not seen in Worcester: warrants. The item is from Brian O'Connell and reads:
gb #6-281 - Mr. O’Connell (August 10, 2016) To implement the provisions of the November 1995 letter of the Commissioner of Education, and the Advisory on School Governance which accompanied it, that "the school committee remains the body responsible for approving and transmitting school department expenditures to the municipal accountant for the drawing of warrants. The Department of Revenue's Division of Local Services has advised that all school department bills must be approved by the school committee. When the superintendent, or principal and superintendent, have statutory authority to incur expense, the Department of Revenue advises that the bills must be approved by them as well as by the committee."
  School committees in Massachusetts are the ultimate authority of the their budgets. This derives from M.G.L. Ch. 71, sec. 34:
The vote of the legislative body of a city or town shall establish the total appropriation for the support of the public schools, but may not limit the authority of the school committee to determine expenditures within the total appropriation.
In other words, yes, the money comes from the city or town, but they can't tell you how to spend it.

This is why, as I've said before, the school committee has more authority over finances within the school system than the city council does within the budget; they can move money (not just cut budget items).

The reference above is ultimately in reference to M.G.L. Ch. 41, sec. 56, which reads in part:
The selectmen and all boards, committees, heads of departments and officers authorized to expend money shall approve and transmit to the town accountant as often as once each month all bills, drafts, orders and pay rolls chargeable to the respective appropriations of which they have the expenditure. Such approval shall be given only after an examination to determine that the charges are correct and that the goods, materials or services charged for were ordered and that such goods and materials were delivered and that the services were actually rendered to or for the town as the case may be...The town accountant shall examine all such bills, drafts, orders and pay rolls, and, if found correct and approved as herein provided, shall draw a warrant upon the treasury for the payment of the same, and the treasurer shall pay no money from the treasury except upon such warrant approved by the selectmen.
What this means is that in most districts, the school committee designates some members (it has been three for most payments; it's now one under the municipal reform bill) to review and sign a warrant for every expenditure of money that the school department makes, and then the full committee must vote approval also for every expenditure the school department makes.

Worcester doesn't, and it hasn't.

Now, my understanding had always been that this was because Worcester has a municipal auditor, who is independently appointed, and thus the secondary review of the school committee isn't legally required. It's also been pointed out that the above passage refers to a "town accountant" and Worcester has no such position.
On the other hand, the DoR has admitted no exceptions to the above, and Department of Revenue guide to municipal offices says this about town accountants (see page 40)
The General Laws provide for the election of one or more town auditors. The role of this position is to review the municipality’s financial books and ensure that proper procedures are being maintained. The laws also provide for the appointment of a town accountant. Towns that have made such an appointment have the option of abolishing the position of auditor. All but the smallest towns in Massachusetts have appointed town accountants and abolished the position of auditor. The town accountant automatically assumes the auditor’s duties upon the abolition of the auditor position.
Thus if the duties can flip in one direction, one might think they could flip in the other. And it's certainly the role filled by the city auditor.

In any case, that's what the item is about tonight in Worcester.

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