Editorial: The numbers game

He won’t officially step into the role of Town Manager until February, but we are already starting to see Mark Sciota’s stamp on the Town of Southington. It was wildly apparent at the Jan. 3 public works committee meeting.

Acting Town Manager Mark Sciota, right, with the late John Weichsel, Southington’s first Town Manager.

Town engineer Annette Turnquist offered a report about the bulky waste transfer station that included the number of vehicles—by date—that visited the facility. She went on to offer reports about the leaf collection facility, including a breakdown of the tonnage collected, contractor expenses, and overtime that reached back two to four years. Asst. town engineer Jim Grappone followed with a thorough report about six capital projects, including detailed updates, funding issues, and projections. Asst. water superintendent Bill Casarella concluded with a comprehensive report on the recent impact of the cold, along with some low cost solutions.

As recently as last year, the bulky waste report was “business as usual, no excessive volumes.” The leaf collection update was “Supreme currently hauling leaves from transfer station.” Even reports about capital projects were reduced to bullet point items. If this is how Sciota’s business continues to get reported, we are excited about things to come.

With the uncertainty at the state level and a decrease in grants and state funding, meticulous reporting is instrumental. How can we expect town leaders to contain costs if the costs aren’t accurately understood? The need for strict accounting of trustable, detailed numbers is vital.

Take the recent Apple Harvest Festival “controversy” on the council as the perfect example. One council member supplied a number in error. A month later it was corrected on the record, and the uproar rippled through the media.

Of course, if there’s ever been a good mistake, this was it. Budget talks haven’t even begun for the next fiscal year, so no decisions were made based on the mistaken numbers. More importantly, the mistake uncovered a trend in poor reporting that reaches back to 2005 when the town took over the management of the festival from the chamber of commerce.

We thank members of both parties for helping us sift through the history to try to better understand the problem. It seems we were left with more questions than answers, but it was good to see that we all seemed to agree on the questions. There were years where reports are missing from the public record—or worse—where multiple reports were entered into the record, and each one had different numbers. Some differences were small. Others were big. One year, the difference was $50,000 (easily explained with a breakdown of numbers).

Of course, we saw chat rooms light up with all kinds of conspiracy theories. Councilors even had to answer questions that former AHF coordinator Jim Champagne stole money. It was crazy. As we walked through reports, the only thing certain is that if it weren’t for Champagne’s researching over the years, the reports would have been even worse. For those conspiracy theorists, it would be hard for anyone to steal from the festival since income and expenses are handled by the town’s finance department, not the festival workers.

We are so thankful for the time that our concilors spent with us, so that we can properly report the story as it unfolds. We expect a lot of discussion about AHF reporting as councilors get ready for this year’s budget season, and we feel confident that the council will learn from past mistakes to find better reporting guidelines for the past, present, and future.

We hope discussions are thoughtful and non-partisan. We hope it’s about fixing the problem, not fixing the blame. Most of all, we hope the council turns to Sciota and his department heads for clarification. That’s what they do best.

To comment, contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski at jgoralski@southingtonobserver.com.

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