ARP Corner: Aiming for Financial Health in Small-Town Government

Stephanie Hughes, Communications & Multimedia Strategist (ARP)

The League is launching its Accounting Instruction & Mentorship (AIM) program. The goal of this program is to improve the financial health of towns that have not historically had the resources and support available that is needed to thrive. The League hopes to accomplish this by providing towns with customized instruction on general accounting procedures, practical guidance and resources to keep finance departments on track, and catch-up bookkeeping and auditing services for towns that may be behind. Beyond the deliverable resources, it will also provide towns with hands-on learning experiences from a dedicated mentor and foster an environment for finance officers to ask questions specific to their situation.

“I am most excited about the relationships that are forming between our League staff and small towns,” Carla Obiol, NCLM’s chief American Rescue Plan (ARP) officer, said. “The towns that we have met with are very excited about this mentorship program because, in many cases, if they simply had someone to turn to in order to ask basic questions, that would make their job and their experience so much better.”

This program stems from the League’s Municipal Accounting Services (MAS), which launched in September 2022 as a part of the League’s new service offerings funded by the ARP. The state legislature tasked the League with investing its designated ARP funds into supporting cities and towns across the state. The MAS program was designed to promote better financial accountability and reliability for smaller governments and includes a full software conversion to Black Mountain Software and additional accounting guidance and training from NCLM staff. However, the League soon realized that a full conversion was not always in the best interest of these small towns, therefore, the League launched AIM and determined that this program would provide the same accounting assistance as MAS, without software conversion.

“We began asking the question: How can we meet towns where they are? I think it is important that we are trying to give them what they need instead of the League prescribing what we think they need,” Obiol shared. “The AIM program provides that easier, how-to, step-by-step approach to having a strong financial process in a town.”

The League is partnering with towns across the state on the program’s initial launch and will assign each town a dedicated mentor to work with the finance staff, management and elected officials in the town. The AIM program may look different in each town as the League will tailor the services to fit that town’s individual needs.

The program will include:

  • One-on-one mentorship, both in-person and virtually
  • Comprehensive training manual including checklists, templates, and other practical tools for finance staff
  • On-demand training videos and written guidance via blog posts and other publications
  • Small group training when possible
  • Catch-up bookkeeping services, if needed
  • Auditor procurement, if needed

The League has seen how towns across the state have struggled in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and competing in an economy where costs have continued to increase. In addition to frequent staff turnover, which can contribute to a town getting behind with its bookkeeping and audits, finding auditors who can complete its annual audits has proved difficult for many small-town governments. These factors can play into towns falling behind on the required audits and then needing to put in additional work to get caught up and remain on target.

In preparation for this program’s launch, the League hosted dinners across the state to introduce the AIM program to towns, receive feedback and allow attendees to ask questions. The Town of Bailey was at one of these dinners. Bailey’s town clerk, Joel Killion, shared his initial impression of the program.

“AIM, it seems, will be a one-stop shop for all your needs, no matter what they are … I do not know that there is anything I can ask them that they cannot find me an answer for, which is really nice,” Killion said. “I wish this had been in place two years ago.”

The Town of Newport also attended one of the AIM program dinners and Newport Mayor Dennis Barber emphasized his staff’s excitement over being a part of the launch of this program.

“I had the finance director with me and her assistant and the first time they heard it, they jumped all over it. They were really happy to know the program would be there. So, we were ready to go and if we could have had [the League] show up the next day, we would be ready for that,” Barber shared. “They gave a presentation that was easy to understand what they were there for, what the mission would be and what opportunities we would have to work more with the League.”

As the program gets underway this summer, hopes are high for how this program will be able to reach towns where they are and provide assistance that walks alongside them and sets them up to be successful moving forward.

“We want it to be an opportunity for the town’s employees to learn how to have a healthy financial process in place. … We are going to get their accounting caught up. We are going to help them get their audits caught up. More importantly, what we want to achieve is that we want them to then know how to stay caught up and not to get behind,” Obiol said. “They walk into jobs that have quite a bit of responsibility and tasks and oftentimes with very little instruction or training…so hopefully we will provide that general foundation for small towns that they have never been able to receive.”

The inaugural towns that will be a part of AIM are optimistic about how this program will support them in running their town finances more efficiently and provide them with a solid foundation that can be passed on as the town moves toward the future.

“I think what [the League] does is amazing,” Barber said. “We’re so grateful for any help and [the League] coming in to help I think will make more of a smooth transition for the next folks that run for office. So, we are looking ahead toward the future for them.”