For the past two Glen Cove Pre-council meetings at City Hall, councilmembers have discussed a proposal to form a finance committee. The proposal is still in its infancy, as officials talk about the committee’s mission and scope, which most agree should be advisory in nature, rather than regulatory.
“The ultimate goal here,” said Councilwoman Marsha Silverman, who spearheaded the proposal, “is to be more efficient and effective so that we’re not wasting the taxpayer’s money.”
The city’s Finance Department is understaffed, according to Sandra Clarson, the city’s controller, and relies on accounting systems that are incomplete or low-tech that leave the department stretched thin.
For example, when another department needs to purchase supplies, they have to manually fill out paperwork and submit it to the purchasing department, which then manually checks to see whether funds are available for the supplies. If they’re not, the purchasing department has to track down the department head, which can sometimes take a day or two. Clarson has asked the city to approve funding for software to automate the process.
“It’s a lot of little things,” Clarson said, “a lot of inefficiencies here in general that I’m trying to work on.” In addition to the purchasing system, Clarson is hoping to update several other processes, including utilities billing and online parking ticket payment, that are similarly inefficient. She spent 13 years eradicating similarly archaic systems in her previous role as comptroller for the City of Long Beach.
Clarson has served Glen Cove for a little over a year after the previous long-term controller, Sal Lombardi, died in December 2016. She has taken several strides during her relatively brief tenure, as she says, “slowly bringing Glen Cove into the millennium . . . [after] it’s been in the dark ages.”
In the meantime, however, the antiquated systems that restrict the Finance Department’s time and resources appear to be taking a toll on its ability to furnish members of the council with complete information.
In advance of a vote last Tuesday on the city’s $9.7 million capital borrowing plan, Silverman said that councilmembers were provided with a printout of a PowerPoint presentation prepared by Clarson. The councilwoman, who has worked for over 25 years in banking and finance, said that the printout wasn’t enough.
“There’s no documentation, there’s no background provided,” Silverman said. “I’m being asked to vote on things without knowing enough about it. Am I supposed to just have faith that I’m getting the best information?” She added that “If we had the right controls in place,” that faith would come more easily.
The PowerPoint presentation provided to the council in advance of Tuesday’s meeting on the capital borrowing plan contained contradictory information — the result of a minor clerical error, Clarson said — which was clarified just prior to the council’s vote. In a summary of the borrowing, the stated total allotment for emergency projects was approximately $3.9 million. On a page further into the document, a detailed list of emergency expenses listed the total as $4.7 million. The error occurred when one portion of the presentation was updated, but the other was not.
The proposed finance committee, Silverman said, should be charged with studying the processes as they are, and suggesting the appropriate controls and procedures. These measures, she said, would protect the public from human error, mismanagement and corruption, “something like what happened in Oyster Bay,” where former town supervisor John Venditto has been indicted in federal court on charges of peddling influence for personal gifts.
“I am not saying that anybody is doing anything wrong,” Silverman said. “but without proper procedures in place, the process has the potential to be exploited.”
Councilman Joe Capobianco said that his concern with a finance committee is that its members will tie up the already limited resources of Clarson’s department with record requests. “We don’t want to overburden the accounting office,” he said, “which doesn’t have a lot of staff.”
Specifically, he is worried about the volume of records that the committee would request. “There has to be a little give and take on that,” he said. “If they’re reasonable, then that could work. But if they give a laundry list of 100 items and they want it by the end of the week, that’s not reasonable.”
Clarson said she didn’t have a preference one way or the other whether the council established a finance committee. “I think as long as it doesn’t interfere with my daily duties,” which, she stressed, were already cumbersome. “As long as it’s not inundating me with additional work, I don’t mind.”
If she were to work with a finance committee, she’d prefer that they be well versed in municipal finance, which she said was very different from corporate finance. The city keeps different accounting documents, she said, and is subject to different regulations than private companies.
“I don’t want to end up teaching [the committee] lessons [in municipal finance],” she said. “We just don’t have the manpower or time. I want to be able to speak to people who have an idea what’s going on and why things are being done.”
Silverman disagreed. “I don’t think [private] finance is that different,” she said. “There are nuances, but I didn’t do municipal finance before now, and from what I’ve seen, there are a lot of concepts that can be leveraged no matter what kind of finance you do.”
She added that in her view, the committee would focus less on the finer details of the city’s finances, and instead explore ways to help Clarson tackle the department’s admittedly numerous inefficiencies.
No one likes change, Silverman said, “But if we put in the proper changes now, everything should be smoother and easier down the road.” The goal of those changes, she added, would be “to facilitate appropriate behavior and remove the potential for overspending.”