Advisory & Finance Committee Overview
The Advisory and Finance Committee is an essential part of Plymouth Town government. Formed under the statutory requirements of Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 39, Section 16, the Advisory and Finance Committee is charged with making reports and recommendations to the Town on any and all municipal questions.
The committee is part of the legislative branch of Town government, and makes recommendations on all warrant articles presented to Town Meeting for consideration. While its' primary responsibility revolves around the detailed review of the Town's annual budget, making recommendations for revision, and presenting the budget to Town Meeting for approval, the Town Charter and Town Bylaws require the committee to consider all matters proposed to be acted on at all Town Meetings.
In practice, the committee serves to investigate and research actions proposed for Town Meeting action, and to advise on those actions. As such, the committee is responsible for supplying much of the information necessary for the legislature to make informed decisions and, therefore, plays a critical communication role in the affairs of the Town.
To meet that critical communication need, the Advisory and Finance Committee is an integral participant in the Precinct Caucuses, serving to share the information it has gathered during its review of warrant articles with Town Meeting representatives, and to answer questions posed by representatives, even those that may not have come up during the committee's deliberations.
Originally established by the Massachusetts legislature as a fiscal watchdog for the taxpayers of Massachusetts communities, finance committees allow a representative group of taxpayers to conduct a thorough review of municipal finance matters on behalf of all taxpayers. In addition to the required review of the proposed budget, finance committees may advise towns on fiscal policy, financial planning, and budget guidelines.
At a high level, the responsibilities of Plymouth's Advisory and Finance Committee include:
- Review, conduct public hearings, and advise on the approval of the annual Town budget and other financial matters,
- Review, conduct public hearings, and advise on the approval of all proposed Town Meeting actions,
- Serve as an investigation, research, and general information gathering arm of Town Meeting, including conveying information to Town Meeting and its representatives,
- Approve appropriations from the Finance Committee Reserve Fund for emergency and unforeseen financial events, and
- Approve, in conjunction with the Board of Selectmen, budget transfers during certain periods of the fiscal year.
Meetings of the Full Committee
The Advisory and Finance Committee, by its very nature, has an aggressive meeting schedule. The Committee generally meets at least once per month on the third Wednesday of every month. In preparation for spring and fall town meetings the Committee usually meets at least once a week (sometimes more often) during January and February for spring Town Meeting, and during August and September for fall Town Meeting. In addition, Committee members have the following additional responsibilities.
In accordance with the Town Charter (Section 2-8-1), Finance Committee members are expected to attend all Town Meetings. Spring Annual Town Meeting is held on the first Saturday in April. The Fall Annual Town Meeting is held on the third Saturday in October. If the Town Meeting deliberations are not completed on Saturday, they will continue over to the following Monday night, and subsequent nights until they are finished. Special Town Meetings may occur at any time during the year. A Special Town Meeting is always held at the same time as the Spring Annual Town Meeting.
Other Meeting Obligations
Each Finance Committee member will be assigned to at least two budget sub-committees. It is the responsibility of each sub-committee to (1) meet with the appropriate department head and staff, (2) review the department operating budgets and capital requests, and (3) submit a written report and recommendation to the full Committee.
Presentation Forums & Precinct Caucuses
The Precinct Chairs also schedule Presentation Forums prior to each Town Meeting so that Town Meeting members can hear a detailed presentation from each department head or article proponent. Each precinct chairman will also schedule a Precinct Caucus during the two-week period before each Town Meeting. At least two Finance Committee members are expected to attend one or more Presentation Forums and precinct caucuses to present the Committee's position on various articles, and to answer questions. Town Meeting members rely on us to help them understand the warrant articles, and the context of the Committee's discussions and recommendations.
It is very important that every Finance Committee member be prepared to answer questions they may be asked about the warrant articles that have come before the Committee. This may entail reviewing meeting minutes, presentation materials distributed by article proponents, and your personal notes in advance of the precinct caucuses. Your primary role is to explain the rationale for the Committee's recommendation, and to support the Committee's recommendation. This may include explaining the general view of dissenting viewpoints. No one is expected to be able to answer every potential question that might be asked at a Presentation Forum or precinct caucus. However, if you are unable to answer the question directly, it is important that you commit to obtaining the necessary information to answer the question, and follow through as soon as possible.
Other Appointments and Liaisons
Committee members may be appointed by the Chairperson to lead other non-budget sub-committees or to be a liaison to another Town committee or board. In the case of such appointment, the member is expected to schedule and/or attend meetings of those entities.
The Selectmen prepare a "warrant" for each town meeting, which notifies the citizens of Plymouth of the specific subjects and requests to be presented for action at Town Meeting. Financial articles usually appear first, followed by items such as bylaw or zoning changes, street acceptances, etc. It is the responsibility of the Advisory and Finance Committee to hear each warrant article and make a written recommendation to the Town Meeting. The Finance Committee Chairperson also makes an oral report to the Town Meeting on each article on the warrant.
The Committee begins discussions about the operating budget process during the summer and early fall meetings. In general, the school budgets are presented to the Finance Committee in early January, along with general government budgets. Preparation for the Spring Annual Town Meeting must finish by late February to comply with Charter requirements.
The Town's operating budget is always presented in Article 7. The operating budget is comprised of five separate components, each addressed by a separate warrant article (7A - 7E). The components include the General Fund Operating Budget (7A), which includes the Town department operating budgets, the School Department budget request, fixed costs, and debt service, and four enterprise fund operating budgets (7B - 7E) covering the Town's enterprise funds (Airport, Water, Sewer, and Solid Waste).
As with most budgets, the Town's annual budget includes non-operating expenses, such as equipment purchases and long-term capital projects and expenses. Departmental Equipment contains all requests for equipment that (a) has a useful life of less than five years, or (b) costs less than $15,000. Items such as large copiers, and personal computers would be found here. Formerly heard as Article 8 at Town Meeting, a change was made starting with FY2019 budgets to include Departmental Equipment in the Department Budgets.
Article 9 is the Capital Outlay Expenditure budget and contains all requests greater than $15,000. Building construction or remodeling projects, land purchases, equipment, mainframe computer systems, feasibility studies, and the like are contained in this budget. The Capital Outlay Expenditure Committee (COEC) begins its' process (hearing and prioritizing projects) in the fall for recommendation to the Finance Committee in February.
In accordance with MGL, Chapter 40, Section 6 the Advisory and Finance Committee oversees a reserve account which may be used from time to time to fund items of an "unforeseen or emergency" nature. The items must be legal expenditures. In short, if a Special Town Meeting could have been called to fund the item, it is the type of item or expense that could have been approved by that body. Requests are presented on a specific form, and they must have the approval of the Department Head, Finance Director, and the Town Manager before they are brought to the Finance Committee.
In accordance with MGL, Chapter 39, Section 16 the Selectmen, with the concurrence of the Finance Committee, may transfer within the last two months of any fiscal year, or during the first fifteen days of the new fiscal year to apply to the previous fiscal year, any amount appropriated for the use of any department or within a department. Requests are presented on a specific form, and must have the approval of the Department Head, Finance Director, and the Town Manager.
While Finance Committee members are not required to attend other municipal government meetings other than those stated above (Section B), members are encouraged to attend such meetings as their personal schedules permit, especially if warrant articles or topics likely to come before the Advisory and Finance Committee are scheduled for discussion.
Some warrant articles require a public hearing. This occurs before the Finance Committee hearing takes place. Examples would be street layouts, zoning articles, and certain DPW projects. The hearing is necessary so that property owners and abutters are made fully aware of any project or zoning bylaw change that may affect their interests.
- Selectmen hear all articles and budgets. The Board of Selectmen generally meets every Tuesday.
- The Committee of Precinct Chairs hear select articles for the Town Meeting warrant. This Committee generally meets on the third Thursday of each month.
- Sub-committees review all budgets, and provide their report before they are presented to the Finance Committee.
- The School Committee hears and votes on the budget before it is presented to the Finance Committee. The School Committee generally meets the first and third Monday of each month.
- The Finance Committee generally meets the third Wednesday of each month. All meetings are posted on the Town website.
- All meetings are open to the public and agendas are available at Town Hall or by email. Finance Committee members are encouraged and welcome to attend any meetings that may fit into their schedules to get additional information on the matters that will eventually come before them.
A calendar for a "typical fiscal year" is flexible and can change with short notice. However, some very general activities can be described be as follows:
- July: Reorganization of Finance Committee
- August: Finance Committee Chair makes annual appointments to other committees
- October: Fall Annual Town Meeting (3rd Saturday)
- November: Association of Town Finance Committees Annual Meeting
- December: School department and town department budget hearings begin. Budget message received from Town Manager.
- January: Budget and article hearings begin
- February/March: Budget and article hearings conclude by third week of March. Hearings on articles for Special Town Meeting Begin. Mailing to Town Meeting members mid-March.
- April: Town Meeting (usually the first Saturday in April)
- May: Town wide elections on the 3rd Saturday of May
- May/June/July: End-of-year transfers and budget corrections