Consultant presents Ascension Parish finance department findings

Michael Tortorich

Patrick Goldsmith of SSA Consultants provided a presentation concerning the ongoing efficiency study during the Ascension Parish Council virtual meeting Feb. 4.

The Ascension Parish Council held a virtual meeting Feb. 4, which included a presentation on the finance department study from SSA Consultants.

SSA Consultants CEO Christel Slaughter, who previously outlined the study findings of the department of public works, introduced Goldsmith to the council. His focus was the parish’s finance department.

To identify opportunities for efficiencies and effectiveness, the scope of work included: interviews with finance management and staff, review of data, interviews with department heads, participation in a leadership retreat, and assistance with the organization and design of the Open Finance Transparency website.

In highlighting findings, Goldsmith said department heads need to take ownership of budgets. Additionally, complete performance data needs to be created for accountability.

Also, data systems need to be re-evaluated to accommodate performance measurement, training is needed on the budget process, and historical financial data needs to be in one accessible system.

In drilling down to authorized positions, Goldsmith recommended the parish administration formally adopt in policy or ordinance the listing of positions in the budget adopted by the council. The administration should develop formal policies and procedures documenting the process for ensuring new employees conform to the listing of authorized positions.

Additionally, the administration should require quarterly reporting to the council on changes to authorized positions in an effort to ensure transparency. Also, the administration should allow department heads some form of access to staff data.

Goldsmith said not all department heads fill out budget worksheets during the budget process, which shifts responsibilities to the finance department.

According to Goldsmith, department heads were willing to get more involved with the process, and may just need some guidance. Some of the disconnect is due to historical budget data spread across two different systems.

In another issue, Goldsmith said 54 individuals are eligible to retire with a collective $1.7 million relative to their termination pay.

To give perspective, he said the top five individuals represent about $500,000 in termination pay.

“So if they retire, that vacation bank will see a significant hit,” Goldsmith said.

Recently, an employee retired with $80,000 in termination pay, he added.

Recommendations included: providing the budget process and data system training to each department head prior to the next budget development, set expectations for department heads to create a complete and timely budget worksheet, consider having head department head present their proposed budget to the finance committee, compile historical budget data into one system, and consider budgeting for termination pay.

Goldsmith said not all department heads have been tracking their budgets throughout the year. The administration has not held regular meetings with department heads and the finance department.

He recommended they set expectations for tracking budgets, holding periodic meetings with directors, present updates to the finance committee, create a standard budget template for department heads, and revise monthly reporting to the finance committee to include a summary of detailed data.

In presenting performance measurement, Goldsmith said the administration is in the process of completing a strategic plan to set the mission, vision and goals for the parish.

He went over internal performance measures for each department, and created outcome, output, and efficiency measures to track staff productivity. Examples given included tracking GIS and GPS.

Goldsmith said the administration should finalize goals and communicate the results to the departments, provide training to each department head on strategic thinking, organizing meetings for each department, and include newly-developed performance data in the fiscal year 2022 budget.

He also stressed the importance of data and systems to process it.

Goldsmith concluded by going over a process for tracking the consultant recommendations.

“We don’t want it to go on a shelf. We hear all the time that reports aren’t followed through, and they’re done over and over, so it’s important we make sure this gets done,” he said.

Following the presentation, District 6 council member Chase Melancon expressed concern about the accumulated hours banked in termination pay.

Though some are grandfathered in, the sick and vacation hours are capped, Goldsmith and Slaughter explained.

Travis Turner, who represents District 3, said parish government must contend with high-paying jobs at plants in the parish’s industrial sector.

“In order to compete with those plants, we have to have some benefits that the plants don’t have,” Turner said.

District 7 council member Aaron Lawler pointed out the importance of carrying out an action plan in a timely manner. The administration and council have less than three years remaining in the current terms.