Examining the books in Hopkington

HOPKINTON — Dr. John Duffy, who has been involved in Hopkinton politics for more than 30 years, says he’s never seen the town’s finances in such a mess. The bungled books have been scrutinized in investigative stories by The Boston Globe and the town has hired an outside accountant to sort out a long unresolved shortfall in a fund for sewer-line improvements of $3 million to $4 million. The fiscal fiascos have forced the volunteer members of the town’s Appropriation Committee to devote more time to their role of civic financial watchdog. Nobody takes that role more seriously than Duffy.

A dentist and former selectman, Duffy is notorious for picking over the town’s $26 million budget as diligently as he searches for signs of decay in his patients’ teeth. He has been relentless in his questioning of the town’s professional finance staff, particularly the town accountant and treasurer, about discrepancies in the Chapter 90 account, which pays for highway projects reimbursable by the state. Duffy isn’t always satisfied with their answers, and often calls the state himself, developing his own sources at the Massachusetts Highway Department and tracking down which grants Hopkinton officials are counting on to balance the books.

These inquiries haven’t made Duffy all that popular with Town Accountant Heidi Kriger and Treasurer Maureen Dwinnell, who is also chairman of the board of selectmen. Both officials acknowledge that Duffy has rooted out mistakes in accounting practices, but they maintain that they have wasted a lot of time — and taxpayers’ money — trying to answer his endless questions. That time, they say, would have been better spent on their daily responsibilities.

Caught in the middle is Appropriation Committee Chairman Ronald Eldridge, who stands by Duffy. Eldridge has told town officials that his committee must be provided the information it requests to ensure that the town’s finances are in order.

“Dr. Duffy has surfaced a lot of questions and that is the right of any individual,” says Eldridge, who is chief financial officer for J.A. Webster, a distributor of veterinary equipment and supplies.

Duffy, 72, has been involved in town politics since 1968. He served six years as selectmen in the 1970s and is in his third stint on the appropriation committee. He sold his dental practice last, but continues to work three days a week with the Spinale Dental Group in Framingham. But most of the time, he’s up to his molars in town finances, which he says are badly decayed.

“The fiscal situation is in disarray right now,” says Duffy. “I’ve never seen anything like this in the 30 years I’ve been involved in town politics. I must have spent at least 50 hours since the last regular budget process looking into these accounts.” Much more than his job, he takes this extra-curricular endeavor with him wherever he goes. “I was down in Falmouth this summer floating in the water and I thought of something. I think of this damn stuff all the time, that is the problem….,” he says. “I’ve reached a point so many times when I ask myself, ‘What am I doing this for?’ My wife says I’m the little boy with my finger in the dike.”

Duffy knows he ruffles feathers in town hall, but he never lets the minor resistance he meets along the way slow him down. Recently, he says, he went to pick up some spreadsheets and a top town official told him it would cost him $1 for the five pages. Duffy won’t name the official, but his irritation is clear.

“I’ve provided them with copies of a lot of state documents on my own showing them what reimbursements are officially filed with MassHighway,” he says. “I called one of the selectmen. He said he would straighten it out.I am a member of the finance committee. I need these documents to do my job.”

Dwinnell, the treasurer, insists that the town’s financial picture is not as bleak as it’s purported to be by either Duffy or the Globe. She says the Chapter 90 account, which is currently in the red by roughly $193,000, will be balanced shortly. The public works department is putting together a list of completed projects that are reimbursable by the state. In addition, an estimated $50,000 shortfall in the Chapter 90 account dating back at least six years is being researched with the understanding that it is probably another accounting snafu, and when those funds are charged to the proper account, the Chapter 90 account will be in balance, Dwinnell says.

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“The town’s financial situation is okay,” she says. “We’ve just had an upgrade through Moody’s [bond-rating agency] to a AA. I don’t believe that Dr. Duffy understands the fundamentals of accounting. Dr. Duffy is raising all these questions and raising all these issues, and once these issues are cleared up we keep going back to the same things. When does it clear up? It doesn’t happen with other appropriations committee members.”

But Duffy’s not the only one in town who thinks Hopkinton’s books need more careful stewardship. The Government Study Committee, which was created by the board of selectmen, is recommending changes in how the town’s professional staff is hired, largely as a result of the ongoing financial controversy, according to member Robert Clark, who also serves on the appropriation committee. The treasurer, which is now an elected post, and the appointed town accountant should both be named by the board of selectmen, he says. That would give the town’s top panel, and its executive secretary, greater control over local finances.

Until then, Duffy says he’ll keep working to give the town a clean bill of health. “My purpose in all of this is to straighten out the financial situation, so hopefully we can get on a solid basis for the next budget cycle.”