Town of Hope delays town meeting while waiting for school budget audit

Thu, 05/25/2023 - 2:15pm

    HOPE — In an  open letter to citizens, the Hope Select Board explained that the town has yet to schedule its annual town meeting, which traditionally takes place after Election Day in June.

    The decision to send the letter to citizens was made at a May 23 executive session of the Select Board held pursuant to 1 M.R.S. §405 6(A)(1), “Discussion or consideration of the employment, appointment, assignment, duties, promotion, demotion, compensation, evaluation, disciplining, resignation or dismissal of an individual or group of public officials, appointees or employees of the body or agency.”

    Town Administrator Samantha Mank said May 25: “I was instructed to disseminate the letter on Thursday (today) via social media, town website, bulk email, and posting at the Town Office on Tuesday, May 23, following an executive session.”

    While the town will hold Election Day June 13 so that citizens can vote on two ballots — electing Select Board and school board members, as well as considering the Five Town CSD budget (governing Camden Hills Regional High School) — it will wait possibly until July to tend to the municipal budget and other town business.

    Hope told its residents that was the case because, “the School Union 69 Central Office has not provided all of the documentation required for the Hope Elementary School audit to be completed.” It needs that information so that the town citizenry has a full picture of finances in order to vote on municipal and school expenditures.

    Hope School Committee Chair Tim Lock responded May 25 to the situation, saying the audit is under way, and the Union 69 School Committee, which consists of members from Appleton, Hope and Lincolnville, has established a subcommittee to address its overall bookkeeping process, and “create new processes.”

    While Appleton and Lincolnville have already approved their respective K-8 school budgets without their audits finished, Hope is different this year in that the school needs capital improvements, such as a new roof, and the town wants to know exactly how much money is in the school budget’s undesignated fund before asking voters to expend taxpayer money on those capital improvements.

    Lock understands, and wants those numbers, too. He is a Hope taxpayer, and does not want to make fiscal assumptions before the audit clarifies the numbers.

    “Are we satisfied with how quickly that is happening,” he said. “No. It is taking longer than normal.”

    That is why the subcommittee is moving forward on recommendations for the bookkeeping at Union 69. On May 24, the Finance Subcommittee met to discuss the Central Office finance organization and produce recommendations for a June 20 joint board meeting.

    Locke attributed complicating factors to bookkeeping details going back to the pandemic, when the federal government funneled large sums of money to public schools and municipalities. That created additional bookkeeping, and contributed to challenging audits. 

    Like the Hope Select Board, Lock said he wants the financial processes transparent to the taxpayer. 

    The Hope Select Board letter follows:

    Dear Citizens of Hope,

    It may have come to your attention that the following annual meetings have not yet been scheduled:

    • 2023 Special Town Meeting to approve the Hope Elementary School budget  (normally held late May)
    • 2023 Annual Town Meeting (normally held the second Thursday of June). 

    The Select Board believes it is important to make Hope residents aware of these delays and to also communicate the reasoning behind them.

    The School Union 69 Central Office has not provided all of the documentation required for the Hope Elementary School audit to be completed. Therefore, the Hope budgetary process has effectively come to a standstill due to the lack of crucial financial information normally provided within the Town’s annual audit. As of the drafting of this letter, the Town still does not have a completed audit for the Hope Elementary School for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022. Without the school’s audit complete, the Town cannot close its books for fiscal year 2022, effectively preventing Hope citizens from having access to a complete and accurate picture of the Town’s financial position. 

    With education totaling nearly 80% of Hope’s annual expenditures, it is critical that the school’s audit is complete so that the Town knows the balance of its Undesignated Fund. Historically a portion of this fund has been used to reduce the amount taxpayers are charged in a given fiscal year. In the case of the upcoming fiscal year, a portion of the Undesignated Fund could also possibly be applied to capital improvement projects, such as a new roof, at the Hope Elementary School, thereby reducing taxes and perhaps even preventing the Town from asking taxpayers to enter into an unnecessary bonding agreement. Without knowing the balance of the Undesignated Fund, it is impossible for the collective elected bodies of Hope to ensure good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

    It is important to note that the Select Board has voiced concern to the Hope School Committee about the preparedness of School Union 69’s Central Office to provide our auditors with timely information for the completion of the annual audit. These concerns have been expressed by the Select Board many times over a number of years to the Hope School Committee.  The Hope School Committee comprises 1/3 of the members of the School Union 69 Joint Committee. In accordance with Maine law, the Joint Committee is the sole body legally charged with overseeing all matters including performance at School Union 69. 

    Due to fact that School Union 69’s Central Office is solely under the authority of the Joint School Committee, the only action the Hope Select Board can take is to continue requesting that the Hope School Committee will take immediate steps to ensure that the Town is provided with the information necessary to make responsible financial decisions on behalf of Hope residents.

    The Select Board is committed to providing financial transparency and accountability to all stakeholders of the Town of Hope. We pledge to you that we will make every effort to protect the citizens of Hope from unnecessary taxation. To do so, we will continue to press for a completed audit so that the Town of Hope can move forward responsibly.

    Once the audit is completed and a budget is made, the Town will move forward as rapidly as possible with the required Annual Meetings.


    Hope Select Board