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Civics Sunday: Interview with Finance Committee Chair Ken Szajda

by The Publishers
July 7, 2019

You, dear readers, voiced an interest in a more personal look at our town government boards and committees.  We created a set of questions that we’re asking a member of elected committees and boards. 

In our continuing series interviewing a member of our elected committees and boards, we interviewed Ken Szajda this week, Chair of Holliston’s Finance Committee.

Mr. Ken Szajda (pronounced Shaida) has resided in Holliston for 19 years, 16 of which serving on the Finance Committee he presently chairs.  In 2003, then new to town, he read about the need for a FinCom member.  Seeing “lots of people doing things for Holliston,” but with no real financial background, Mr. Szajda wrote of his interest.  He was appointed in 2003 to fill the vacancy.  His philosophy is “fiscal responsibility:  live within your means.”  But he attributes the good people on the Committee for the work done to improve the town’s finances. 

1.      How does the Finance Committee develop its agenda for each meeting?

Meeting agendas are set based on the fiscal year - July 1 - June 30.

July and August meetings are spent reviewing the OPEB Trust or the Finance Committee's policy documents.  Mr. Szajda explained that these reviews occur in alternating years.  

Early fall begins the capital budget planning for the October Town Meeting.

Beginning in the late fall of each year the Finance Committee meeting agendas focus on the following year's budget preparation.

Often in December the committee will address special topics - always with the same focus: how will we improve this (topic)?

January through early May, the committee meets frequently, reviewing the budget requests with every department, board, and committee.  The culmination of all the meetings held by the Finance Committee is the Annual Budget presented at the May Town Meeting.

The last Finance Commmittee meeting of the fiscal year, the Committee is authorized by statute, to make budget transfers to in essence balance the books at the close of the fiscal year.  Mr. Szajda remembers one year when the amount transferred was $14.

And then the cycle repeats itself for the coming year.

2.      How does the Finance Committee make informed decisions that are the best for our community?  Please tell us of one recent decision made by the Finance Committee as an example. 

Mr. Szajda reminded us that the Finance Committee is authorized to advise and give consent relative to financial matters across all town departments, boards, and committees.  He believes that in order to make an informed decision you need a good understanding of the issue at hand.  Each decision starts with research.  Who are the experts on the topic? What are the costs and benefits of the issue?

One example that Mr. Szajda shared was a $25,000 request to repair the parking lot at the elementary schools.  Sean Reese was consulted on the request.  His expertise suggested that some minor patching could be done within the current DPW budget that would tide the situation over for a couple of years until the entire parking lot could be planned, budgeted and completed.  So that is the approach taken in this situation.

Mr. Szajda used the phrase 'creative tension' as a way to explain why the Finance Committee asks challenging questions when presented with a budget request.  Also, he repeated a statement that is in the budget preparation documents each year - "please don't take the questioning personally." It might be uncomfortable at points but a better outcome is likely through this dialogue. 

Ultimately it is the committee's wise decision-making that keeps our town fiscally sound.

While not specifically a decision making topic, Mr. Szajda pointed out that often people will ask for funds from the Reserve Fund in lieu of a budget request.  He clarified that statutorially the Reserve Fund is for "unforeseen and unanticipated" expenses which can most times be avoided by a thorough budget planning process.

3.      How does the Finance Committee interact with other boards and committees on a recurring basis?  Do you have any views concerning the frequency of these interactions?

As described earlier, the Finance Committee meets at least once per year with every department, board, and committee as part of the budget preparation cycle.

Also, similar to the Select Board, Finance Committee members are liaisons with town boards and committees.  Through these liaison relationships, the committee assists in examining the financial implications of ideas, plans, or discussions being held by those groups.

As the Finance Committee chair, Mr. Szajda shared that he is contacted directly by individuals - either by e-mail or in person as he makes his frequent walks through town - to ask for his financial input on something.

He illustrated the partnership needed between the Select Board and Finance Committee in this way, "the Select Board is the executive decision-making body and the Finance Committee works to fund the executive decisions."  The Chair of the Select Board and Finance Committees talk at least weekly to stay on the same page.  Always guided by the question, "will we have enough money for this?"

“I like to think people of the town can respect their elected officials.  I live up the street to you.  It’s very important at a local level.“

4.      How do you see the Finance Committee being more effective for our community?

“We need to finish the work on the capital plan.  We have an asset management plan now,” Mr. Szajda said.  “We need to update the data and get to the point where we rely on the fall Town Meeting to make decisions.”  Concerning capital, he said that we’ve ramped up the amount we put away. 

Presently, there is some conversation about hiring a finance director or CFO for the town. “We’re the only board that has no administrative support.  No staff, no office.  Everything we do we have to do ourselves.  We have done a lot of good things with people willing to drive them.   We do research, prepare a proposal.  It’s a lot of work, and it’s not my full time job.”  Mr. Szajda emphasized that he relies on others to move forward, and the town might be better served as we grow to dig deeper into some of the financial issues.  “A finance professional will cost.  Where do you get the money to support that?”

Additionally, Mr. Szajda mentioned that the OPEB [Other Pension and Employee Benefits] Trust is in place.  We did the leg work and it is working now.  Holliston is ahead of many other towns in this regard and the funding needs to continue

5.      What are the best ways for residents to provide input to the Finance Committee ?

“Come to our meetings.”  Exhibiting his sense of humor, Mr. Szajda quipped that, ”We realize we have only two viewers.  It’s so bad and the meetings are so long and so dull that no camera person [referring to the HCAT cable station] wanted to come and sit through them.”  But residents can email any FinCon member: addresses are available on the town website.

“A lot of people still don’t know who I am.  I don’t get stopped.  So people don’t see me and don't get to give me their input on something,” Mr. Szajda noted.  “A couple of our members are on Facebook, but not me.  I’d rather have a face-to-face direct interaction.  Context is absent on social media.”

Mr. Szajda’s email: Ken Szajda

6.       Currently, what is the main priority for our town?  (In general, not necessarily related to the Finance Committee?

Managing Holliston’s growth is the priority Mr. Szajda selected.  “When you’re small, everybody knows each other.  What happens—there are handshake agreements.  Growth is a transition to be more policy-driven, more mindful of treating everyone the same.”  

Recently, we saw this with our trash pick up situation that had evolved from an the unequal pickup schedule of the condos in town.  How had this developed?  Because someone maybe 30 years ago had sent the truck to one condo development.  “So you make sure you do everything by policy as the town grows.  You have to codify the handshakes, to avoid the perception of favoritism…you put all the condos on the same plane.”

Continuing with the example of the trash pick-up, Mr. Szajda said that the contract with Harvey is enforcing the trash can size policy that has been in place for years. Unfortunately the former hauler, although having a policy of the identical sized barrel, did not enforce it.  This unequal practice of our former hauler has made people upset.  “I get it,” said Mr. Szajda.      

We are thankful for Mr. Szajda’s time spent talking with us on a rainy afternoon.  His passion for making Holliston a town that can live within its means is so clear as he speaks about his service to the FinCom.  And he’s quick to point out that his fellow members are a big part of why he’s remained in that position.

 

 

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Comments (1)

Very insightful. Thank you.

- Shaw Lively | 7/8/19 8:06 AM

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