2016-07-21 / Front Page

Accounting Concerns at AIPC

By Olga Enger

The Town of Middletown has joined the Town of Portsmouth in delaying a portion of their annual $18,000 appropriations to the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission (AIPC) amid concerns over the group’s accounting practices.

Portsmouth councilors initially raised questions after AIPC board member Anne Macedonio resigned in April for a “host of reasons relating to their financial accounting,” according to her resignation letter.

Macedonio, a certified public accountant, said it was her recommendation to hold town funding until “an independent audit is conducted for the past five years, with active management and board members not having the ability to control the audit or select the auditors in any way.”

In response to those concerns, Portsmouth Finance Director Jim Lathrop reviewed the AIPC financial processes and books. He added the group was “extremely cooperative” and open to suggestions for improvement.

“We went in for a few hours and met with them. It’s not that we found any misappropriations. It’s just that there is no formality of their operations,” said Lathrop.

The AIPC acknowledged there were weaknesses in their accounting processes and the agency was open to Portsmouth’s recommendations, according to Lathrop. He advised the town to release 50 percent of the funding, which had already been approved in the budget, and repeat a financial review once the group has implemented the recommendations.

AIPC Executive Director Thomas Ardito said accounting firm Kahn, Litwin, Renza (KLR) recommended that a full audit, as suggested by Macedonio, was not the best use of their funds. “It would cost approximately $50,000,” said Ardito.

The AIPC was founded in 1985 as a joint municipal planning agency “fostering communication, coordination, and consensus building,” according to their mission statement. The group’s annual budget of $350,000 is funded through government and private grants, as well as annual municipal appropriations from the three island communities.

“The municipal appropriations of $18,000 [each] aren’t a large part of our budget, but they are an important part,” said Ardito.

Following Portsmouth’s lead, Middletown Town Council voted to also hold 50 percent of that town’s funding at their July 18 meeting.

Newport has not raised the issue.

“There is no intent at this time to not cut this check,” said Newport First Ward Councilor Marco Camacho, who is council liaison to the AIPC. “The Town of Portsmouth took a proactive position, but quite frankly, Portsmouth’s own professionals found there were no improprieties. Why are town councils nickel-and-diming the AIPC over $18,000?”

The AIPC is in the process of implementing Portsmouth’s recommendations and is preparing a new budget report with KLR, said Ardito. The suggestions include updating their chart of accounts, tighter internal controls, improved reporting, and project level accounting, among others.

AIPC Presents Strategic Plan

After over a year of interviews, the AIPC unveiled its strategic plan to the Middletown Council on Monday, July 18.

“We had 15 people working on this over 18 months, with two professional firms. We conducted well over 100 interviews with all the key stakeholders in the three communities,” said Ray Berberick, chair of the AIPC Strategic Plan Subcommittee, speaking before the council.

In late 2014, the board began work on the strategic plan to better identify the AIPC’s role on the island. They found that Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport shared challenges such as sustaining water quality, transportation systems, disaster readiness, job creation, and land use.

Henry Lombardi, Middletown Council liaison to the AIPC, said when he first became involved with the group, he was unsure they were productive.

“I said you need to produce, you need to show that you deserve [taxpayers’ money]. I was well received. They didn’t disagree with me. They were going to do the right thing.”

Over the years, the AIPC has completed studies on issues such as transportation, surplus Navy land, water quality, bikeways, kayak routes and broadband services. Following a nationwide search, Ardito took over the helm last August from interim Director Sarah Atkins, who succeeded long-time Executive Director Tina Dolen in July 2014.

“If you look at the traffic study they did 15 years ago, there are things happening on this island today that were in that study back then,” said Lombardi.

Most recently, the AIPC developed Solarize Aquidneck in partnership with the state Office of Energy Resources. The program provided information and discounts to homeowners interested in residential solar energy. It resulted in 159 installations on Aquidneck Island and generated more than $4 million in economic activity, mostly benefiting local installers and contractors, according to the AIPC.

Looking to the future, Ardito said the AIPC will host the Smart Island Series, a group of public forums focused on bringing technology to improve the management of Aquidneck Island.

The first forum is scheduled for Sept. 22 at Salve Regina University.

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