Section 3-1(f) of the Town of Hopkinton Home Rule Charter, which was adopted by voters in 2017 reads:
The Town Report - The Board of Selectmen shall issue an Annual Town Report and make it available at least fourteen (14) days in advance of the Annual Town Meeting.
The process to prepare the Annual Town Report (ATR) takes several months, and per the charter, is overseen by Town Manager Normal Khumalo. ATRs are consistently voluminous; the 2022 report was 376 pages in total. The final product is bound in book form and available at town hall and online on the town’s website. It is also distributed to attendees at Annual Town Meeting.
The report contains updates from the Select Board, all town departments, and several committees and commissions. It highlights key metrics and accomplishments, and ostensibly provides Hopkinton voters with a progress report to help inform their choices at Town Meeting. Because the registered voters that attend Town Meeting act as the legislative body for the town, all ATRs must be voted on, typically appearing as the first order of business on the agenda.
For example, Article 1 of the Town Meeting 2023 warrant read:
Acceptance of Town Reports; Sponsor: Select Board - To hear the Reports of Town Officers, Boards, and Committees
As in all other years in recent memory, the article was introduced, it passed unanimously, and the moderator moved on to the second warrant item.
But a comparative review of previous ATRs reveals several inconsistencies in both format and content from one year to the next, particularly with respect to the town’s financial reporting. Of particular note is that in the 2020 Expenditure Reports, the line item for Hopkinton Public Schools (approximately $49 million) was inexplicably left out. Yet voters unanimously approved the motion to accept the report at the 2021 town meeting.
Which begs the question: Who actually reads these reports?
In other ATRs, committee reports have simply been duplicated from the previous year’s report, with little change to the wording. The reports for the Upper Charles Trails Committee, for example, were essentially the same for 2017, 2018 and 2019.
From a presentation standpoint, the ATRs are difficult to read. Most voters are not likely to drop by Town Hall to pick up a printed copy, preferring to read the report online in PDF format. Yet many of the pages (particularly in the financial reporting section) are rotated counter-clockwise, making them extremely difficult to read. The Table of Contents, presumably designed for print, is inaccurately numbered in the electronic version, and from one year to the next the reports differ in their sequencing: in 2020 the Select Board’s report begins on page 35, but in 2022 it begins on page 7, for example.
Perhaps the most glaring problem is that there is no efficient way to compare the performance of any particular board, department or committee from one year to the next. This problem is particularly acute when it comes to town finances. No ATR includes any historical financial data, and without this context it is difficult to know if the budget amount being requested is less, more or the same as it was in any other year.
“In every major company in the US they maintain a budget against prior year actuals and prior year budget, so you can see how the budget is changing against both,” said Chuck Holden, a Hopkinton resident and retired Chief Financial Officer. “This should be represented in both absolute dollars and percentages. Including this data forces departments to rationalize what they’re asking voters for.”
Neighboring towns include comparison data in their ATRs. The Town of Milford, for example, provides a three-year lookback of actual expenses along with the percentage change between years.
Compounding the readability problem of Hopkinton’s ATRs is the inconsistency in accounting codes and names used. Through 2017 the Accounting department used simple codes like 152 HUMAN RESOURCES to identify the HR department; by 2020 it had changed to 1001522 HUMAN RESOURCES EXPEN. Additionally, the Expenditure Report does not contain column headers on each page, nor does it include a Grand Total column; it relies on subtotals only. To derive a grand total, a reader would need to calculate by hand each of the department subtotals.
Taken together, the finances of town operations are difficult to understand.
A contributing factor may be turnover at Town Hall. There have been three people who have held the Town Accountant position in the last five years, and this role is given broad discretion about what data to include in the report and how it is formatted. As of this writing, the Chief Financial Officer position remains vacant.
Inconsistency in School Reporting
The approved General Fund budget for the town for fiscal year 2022 was $93,393,072, with 58% allocated for schools.
But reporting on school expenses has been inconsistent. For ATRs from 2017 through 2019 the Expenditure Report breaks down the expenses by school, with special education programs, buildings, technology and other categories separated.
Then in 2020, as mentioned previously, the ATR does not contain a line item for the schools. HopNews inquired about the missing pages with the Town Clerk, Town Manager, and Town Accountant and none had an immediate explanation as to why the data was not included.
In 2021, there is a just a single $51 million line item for schools, with no detail provided.
And in 2022 the school report is intensely verbose, spanning 17 pages but missing a subtotal. The only way to total the entire school expenditure report is by hand (which we did; $55,224,859).
Transparency is critical in a democracy for several important reasons: It provides for accountability, informed decision-making, fosters trust in government, prevents corruption and ensures the fair allocation of resources.
The ATRs serve as Hopkinton’s most important method for understanding how our government (and tax dollars) are working. But when voters don’t understand what they’re reading or are buried in minutiae, they are reluctant to continue thinking, exploring, and challenging.
As Lucy Jo Palladino, author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload, explains:
“Information overload occurs when a person is exposed to more information than the brain can process at one time.”
As we take in more and more complex information in less time and have more options laid out in front of us, our brains tend to panic and freeze. We lose the ability to make good decisions.
The ATRs should ensure that they serve Hopkinton voters and are not just created as a perfunctory exercise for town employees as demanded by the town charter. With the Town voters considering a significant investment in a new elementary school, it is imperative that accurate summary figures are presented, especially with regard to school expenditures, so that voters can properly assess the Town’s finances and make informed decisions. It also highlights the urgency of filling the CFO position and potentially exploring whether our Town has sufficient staffing to address the complexities of our current finances. Hopkinton’s rapid growth makes the ATR more important than ever.