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Town right to ask for accountability

“Trust, but verify,” goes an old Russian proverb used by the late President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to characterize his approach to dealing with the former Soviet Union.

We thought of that when reading about recent agreement between the town of Merrimack and the Merrimack Youth Association, the nonprofit volunteer group that offers a variety of athletic opportunities for children in town.

The MYA runs football, basketball, wrestling, cheerleading, lacrosse and other programs that give children – and, hopefully, their parents – the opportunity to learn about teamwork, sportsmanship, fair play and other lessons they’ll carry with them through life.

But the organization’s finances drew scrutiny last year when it appeared that one of the group’s volunteers may not have been handling MYA finances strictly by the book. Police investigated, and while they reportedly found some accounting irregularities, authorities said they were insufficient to warrant criminal charges.

Still, members of the Town Council – which provides about $70,000 per year to fund MYA programs – were concerned enough to engage MYA directors in a dialogue about the organization’s accounting procedures.

The result was an agreement struck about a month ago that allows the town to keep closer tabs on the MYA’s books. While the agreement stopped short of requiring the youth organization’s ledger to come under the scrutiny of a certified public accountant, the town will be able to “confirm cash balances, confirm receivables and so forth,” said Town Manager Eileen Cabane.

This is the way such things are supposed to work. In a perfect world, an agreement like this wouldn’t be necessary. But the MYA needs the financial support of the town, and should have it, because organizations like the MYA are the lifeblood of many a community for the valuable learning and recreational experiences they provide. Long after children have grown up and moved away from Merrimack, their memories of participating in MYA programs is one of the things they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.

But the town also has an obligation to make sure that taxpayer money is being spent the way it was intended, according to commonly accepted financial procedures. Structuring a contract in such a way that gives the town piece of mind and removes any hint of impropriety is just good business and accountability.

There doesn’t have to be finger-pointing. There doesn’t have to be recriminations. In fact, there can even be trust.

But there will also be verification, which is something that everyone can be comfortable with.