Athol’s finances in good shape, says financial report

  • UniBank Senior Financial Adviser Lynne Foster-Welsh (r) met with members of Athol's Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee and Selectboard Tuesday night to discuss the town's fiscal health. She said the town's current credit rating, according to Standard & Poor's, is AA-/Stable. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 11/19/2023 5:01:19 PM
Modified: 11/19/2023 5:00:26 PM

ATHOL – A review of the town’s finances shows that while the situation is largely positive, some issues remain to be resolved.

UniBank Senior Financial Adviser Lynne Foster-Welsh met earlier with the Selectboard and the Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee on Nov. 14 to present her report on the town’s 2022 audited financial statements.

Among the items falling under the category of “good news,” Foster-Welsh pointed that nearly 21 percent of the town’s general fund expenditures were classified as reserves and unassigned to any budget. The town, she continued, currently has a AA-/Stable rating with Standard & Poor’s, the global bond/credit rating agency. She said of that level of unassigned expenses, “You’d normally see that in AA to AA+ credit rating. So, you’re moving in the right direction as far as you unassigned fund balance.”

The S&P rating is based on a review of the town’s finances completed in August of this year.

In addition to strong reserves, the ratings agency said Athol has demonstrated strong budgetary performance, due in part to its consistent budget surplus. The report also characterized the town’s economy as stable and said that 82 percent of its debt should be paid off within 10 years.

On the downside, according to S&P, the financial obligations created by pensions and OPEB (other post-employment benefits) liabilities put the town in a weak debt position. In addition, the town needs better long-term financial planning, along with a formal capital improvement plan which also identifies funding sources to pay for capital expenditures.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, Town Manager Shaun Suhoski said, “We have professional staff and, obviously, we want to do the best we can for the taxpayers. I was very pleased to see the progress which she presented, rather than having something that was done internally; certainly, we don’t want to be patting ourselves on the back, so it’s gratifying that this was an independent assessment of our finances. There’s a lot of good that has happened in recent years.”

He pointed to the level of reserves the town currently has on hand as one indicator of the town’s improving financial strength.

“Athol isn’t an affluent community,” said Suhoski, “so the town needs to have some resiliency – the ability to get through those lean years. In the past we’ve seen layoffs or targeted reductions in hours. But the people of Athol can now be assured that the town can deliver the services we’re supposed to deliver.”

That, said the town manager, is why building up the town’s stabilization fund has been a goal. At the same time, the town has been focused on expanding its free cash account, while also being judicious in determining how those funds are spent.

“We need to work on the things that we can – our capital planning process, tightening up on our five-year plans, including being more specific in our funding sources and maybe tying that into our debt position going forward,” he said.

Suhoski said that, overall, he was pleased with the presentation from Foster-Welsh, “but I think what we heard (Tuesday) night was, let’s have a plan where we push a little harder toward OPEB and building that trust fund, and I already have some ideas on that.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.


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