Council delays $3 million in bill payments in North Smithfield; Vendors question fund status

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Finance Director Antony St. Onge, left, explains the status of town accounts. Beside him is Solicitor David Igliozzi and Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – A decision by the North Smithfield Town Council to delay payment of nearly $3 million in town bills on Monday has left some vendors questioning when they’ll receive funds due from the town.

A plan to resolve the issue at a second meeting scheduled for Thursday, March 21 was sidelined due to lack of a quorum of council members. And another meeting planned for Monday, March 25 was cancelled as the correct agenda was not filed with the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office on time.

Finance Director Antony St. Onge told NRI NOW Thursday afternoon that three vendors had already reached out to various town departments questioning when payment would be coming for services previously rendered. And with Town Council President Kimberly Alves, and Councilors John Beauregard and Claire O’Hara unable to attend a gathering planned that evening, funds would not be on track for release until the following week.

“It’s only been a couple of days, so I guess we’ll see,” said St. Onge on Thursday, March 21 of the early vendor reaction.

Cancellation of the Monday meeting set the schedule back further for those who had already provided goods and services to the town.

The vote to delay payment of town bills follows requests by some councilors in recent months for more detailed reports from the finance director. In past years, there’s been little discussion of the matter by councilors, with town payments approved near the start of each meeting via a quick, routine vote.

St. Onge, who was hired last March following the departure of Cynthia DeJesus, included a 28-page list of vendor invoices and account data with bills presented this week. The cost for many items listed was relatively small, with payments due to many local businesses including Leeway Hardware, Johnston Asphalt and WB Mason.

Councilor Paulette Hamilton asked about one account that showed a negative balance, and the finance director explained that the number was not an accurate reflection of what was in the account, but rather a result of how the accounting software displays the balance.

Public Works Director Raymond Pendergast verified that his department had been issued a, “blanket PO,” for road repair funds that were not yet spent due to excessive rain halting construction last fall. Pendergast noted that his department has spent only $35,000 of the $800,000 road repair line item and that the negative $52,000 shown on a spreadsheet generated by the accounting software did not reflect the reserve funds.

St. Onge told councilors that he has no way to manipulate the report.

The question was among several for the finance director regarding perceived discrepancies in the report, and Alves told St. Onge he should provide year to date expenditures and available balances for every line item in the budget each month.

“I don’t know if Cynthia ever had to provide what I’ve been asked to provide,” St. Onge replied, referencing his predecessor, and noting that the requested document would be 200 pages long.

“We can certainly provide it,” St. Onge said.

Osier initially voted along with O’Hara and Beauregard to pay the bills.

“I just don’t feel comfortable with the information we’re getting,” Alves said of her decision to vote against the payments.

Later in the meeting, after a tense confrontation with Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski over a separate issue – the town’s recently contentious process of applying for grants – Osier said he wanted to reconsider his vote.

St. Onge told councilors his department is not up to date on the process of reconciling accounts.

“For a long time now, due to how much work our finance department has, we’ve never caught up on reconciliations,” he said. “It was worse before I came. We’re further up-to-date than we ever have been. We’re making great progress.”

St. Onge later told NRI NOW that the town was some nine months behind on the reconciliation process when he took the job last March. Now, he said, the finance department is a few months behind, with plans to be up-to-date before councilors begin the budget process in May.

“I think the process needs to be looked at,” Osier said of the news.

“I have a change of mind on it,” he said of the bills. “I just don’t feel comfortable approving them tonight.”

Beauregard asked Osier not to change his vote.

“These people have to get paid,” Beauregard said of the vendors. “We want to be a town that pays our bills. These people should not have to deal with our in-fighting.”

Osier noted that the board was scheduled to meet again on Thursday, and the payments could be added to that agenda.

“I just want a little more information,” he said.

“We’ve got to pay our bills,” Beauregard responded. “It’s not their problem. They deserve their money. I’m in my sixth year as a council member, and this is the first time we have voted not to pay bills. This is crazy.”

Osier voted against the payments and the Thursday meeting was later cancelled. The council then planned to meet on Monday, March 25 to address the issue, and that meeting was also cancelled. Currently, the board is expected to take up the question of bill payment at a meeting on Wednesday, March 27.

Editor’s note: The above article was edited to reflect the second meeting cancellation.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. What a majority of the North Smithfield Town Council has essentially voted to do here is to punish our vendors for our own perceived inadequacies. Why didn’t the TC inform the Finance Director and Town Administrator that, going forward, approval of payments to vendors would be delayed unless information as specified and enumerated were provided to the TC? Instead, they chose to chastise and embarrass them – and our town.

    If you are a Town of NS vendor (who have their own expenses, including payments to their own vendors and employee payroll), and NS’s account is now past due, do you want to continue doing business with the Town of NS? Is this a one-time penalty, or will the TC voting to decline to pay invoices on time possibly become a regular occurrence? And are there any penalties for late payments, or now lost discounts for early payments? Do they know? Ultimately, why should NS taxpayers potentially be on the hook because a majority of our elected TC leaders decided to penalize our vendors and use their elected positions to publicly scold and shame the Finance Director and Town Administrator?

    If the FD needs to provide more detail along with payment requests, then the TC and TA need to make sure that happens. That said, and without question, the Town of NS should be following best practices and procedures in all departments – especially finance. But how is voting to decline to pay our vendors a best practice? Taxpayers in the Town of NS are those who shouldn’t “feel comfortable” here – uncomfortable with a majority of TC members who determine agreements to pay debts are arbitrary and capricious.

    • The financial process is to review the documentation provided and vote to approve or not approve. So TG and JB believe the town council should blindly approve vendor payments whether or not they feel comfortable with the information provided. Then why even have a vote if this is just a rubber stamp. This type of thinking shows the financial illiteracy of certain politicians. Do you think that some of the town council members have been asking for the documentation to be fixed and they have been continually ignored by the TA and finance director because payments have always been approved. So this was the way to force the issue to be fixed. If vendors have an issue with payments then the only people they can blame is the TA and the finance director. If the finance director had followed the appropriate financial controls this would not be an issue.

      • So those concerns of three TC members were to be fixed by Thursday, when plans to resolve the issue at another TC meeting were scuttled? Within a scant three days requested protocols would be established, so approval would be given to pay? How’d that work out?

        This was not about long-term solutions and following processes, because if it were, there would have been no foiled plans for Thursday evening. The message would have been sent that bills would no longer be paid unless additional information were provided – period. But instead, they punished an employee to make their point. Political grandstanding comes before paying our debts in NS.

        Financial literacy needs to be established in NS? I suggest residents and taxpayers revisit the tax abatement issue in NS from 2014. That is, the million $ abatement issue. What was learned and what financial protocols were established since then to mitigate “information discrepancies”? A key figure who disavowed any responsibility at that time is now all over this. Apparently leadership has blinders.

        Look it up.

        • The plan is to make the poor FD look incompetent so they can continuously attempt to smear the TA. Just look at the mess he inherited, no one talks about that! BM and MC get their marching orders from the King and Queen to execute the mission of smearing. Only a matter of time before Mr. St. Onge quits this clown show.

          It seems as though one resident, always knows more than anyone else, knows the laws inside and out, spends thousands of his own money chasing “facts and data” yet always wants to be in the audience and never behind the table as an elected official. He’s the shadow leader now with votes at the table and a vote in the DPW. He just needs one more vote to fall in line.

          The plan is to attempt convince Doug Osier that a town an appointed manager is better. So far it’s working.

          And guess who candidate #1 would be. —Not Her Again

          • Sounds like someone is trying to start more false narratives again. It’s the same false narrative that’s been proven wrong multiple times before even.

            So, we’ve been doing something a certain way for however long now, and even if it was the wrong way before, just do it anyways? That’s how towns/cities get hurt. It’s a safety issue at that point. Clearly it shows that the old way is not the correct way and needs to change.

              • The previous ways of doing things is the safety issue, the examples of this are way too long and already well documented. I also don’t plan on naming everything, even if others ask, because now they’ll say there’s nothing that’s wrong and then it’ll distract from the purpose of this reply and then they’ll be extra embarrassed when they get proved wrong once again. I just need to point to an article where a certain someone asked what illegal activities are going on in town, only for them to be rightfully embarrassed after every response of all the illegal activity examples.

                In any good business, there’s the OODA loop or PDCA method in place for every aspect/program. With the ever changing landscape of the town dynamics, things need to change in order to progress the town in the correct direction, instead of regressing. If the town doesn’t look within itself to observe what is or isn’t working, how can it fix itself or improve on those items? Is just common sense to do these things. How can you implement l, m, n, o, or p, without coming up with a, b, and c, and wonder why things fail? Big and small ideas alike without a foundation fail and fall apart over and over again.

                There are also three levels of functionality for the town, declining phase, maintaining phase, progressing phase as well. We’ve been in the decline phase for what seems to be the previous 10ish years, Alves, Hamilton, and Osier are trying their best to change that, but change is painful and usually takes about 5ish years (Some places accept change faster than others). Some places need to adapt to the change quicker than others as well, in order to avoid being taken over. It also doesn’t help that people are against change, hence the declining phase of the town.

                  • Thank you MD, here are the top 3 I would like to see get changed within the upcoming election cycle and followed through with the next council/administrator.

                    1. The way the town interacts with town members. Over the years the volunteers have decreased significantly as well as the trust we have put in council/administrator to get things done correctly. This may need to be a charter change, personnel change, or some other change not mentioned. This is where there would need to be a town hall type of discussion, without a time limit, and also on the weekend to allow as many people as possible to bring forth the issues they face/want to make changes for. It would show that the council is at least attempting to show they want change as well. This should also hopefully allow members who work second or third shifts during the week to attend and voice their opinions. These type of meetings might need to be quarterly to start, then eventually get down to a spring/fall schedule as those seasons promote cleaning and changes, and when the town is functioning properly once a year maybe.

                    2. The way the town goes for funding requests/job postings/budgets. With the correct department heads, their wouldn’t/shouldn’t be (I understand that some things may pop up unannounced and catch people them off guard) any surprises when things get brought up, due to implementation of the OODA loop or PDCA method. The more transparency allowed the better the town should feel safe about their decisions. Just following the rules and procedures in place already would help a decent amount. This would also include having a budget plan and readily available information, instead of guessing. Each department should be considered like it’s own business and have these practices in place. It may seem cruel to start, but once everyone/every department is on board and functioning, then the town can progress.

                    3. Preventative maintenance practices. This one has shown to bring ugly truths forward, that certain council member(s) just don’t care for. This may be considered an additional duty for people, but in reality it was already in their description and not followed through. See the bottom portion of item 2, as it should also be implemented here as well.

                    Removing the what ifs and potential grants, and having just facts and data, should allow for better decisions. Once the town reaches that level, then the town can start having the what ifs and potential grants WITH actual sound foundations for what they want to get built/expand/repair, which would allow for those items to succeed.
                    For a hypothetical instance, my car has a flat tire, previous councils would approve a new car instead of asking for receipts and work orders and showing how this is a repeating problem and not find the root cause of why I have a flat tire. These type of practices need to stop and change.

          • To “Thinking Ahead”, the cowardly idiot who posted his ridiculous comments and offered absolutely no” facts or data” to support his conspiracy theories, I strongly suggest that in order to actually be “thinking ahead”, it would be best to remove your head from the sand or whatever other place you might have stuck it.

  2. If only people followed rules and procedures, we wouldn’t be in this mess. I appreciate the council members who don’t blank check and hope departments are doing the correct thing.

  3. Agreed 100%, St Onge has neither the background or experience to be the Finance Director of this town, with a budget of approximately 55 million dollars. In addition, Mr Zwolenski, the Town Administrator provides no direction, oversight or management of personnel. Good God, is anyone in charge? Watching these meetings is like watching The Three Stooges!

    I will say it for the hundredth time: Change the Charter and hire a certified, professional, experienced Town Manager. All we have to do is look at the Towns of Burrillville and Blackstone to see professionalism at it’s best.

  4. The town actually needs a finance director that went to school for accounting. The report and numbers can be fixed by not allowing department heads to issue blanket PO’s that exceed the budget or second not allow for blanket purchase orders which is a poor/lazy financial control. Just issue a PO for each invoice or encumbrance. The issue is not the report or excuses made by the finance director or department heads it is the lazy way the system is manipulated and used. This is why the audit report points out a lack of internal control over the finances in NS. Since the finance director is lacking the training and experience in these areas it is time to bring in a financial consultant aka CPA firm to implement strong financial controls and not let the administrator and department heads do whatever they want.

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