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Editorial: Hatfield must fix fiscal mess

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The town of Hatfield must make it a priority to get its financial house in order. The town has not been able to properly manage its money for much of the past decade, resulting in some taxpayers losing trust in Town Hall. Accounts are riddled with bookkeeping errors, tax bills don’t go out on time, policies are lacking, and required financial reporting to the state is routinely late, among many other deficiencies.

These aren’t isolated issues. They have been documented and chronicled year after year in outside financial audits and reviews. Four years ago, an audit of the town’s finances revealed errors, inaccuracies and “the lack of basic accounting procedures.” The following year’s audit detailed a lack of formal financial policies and procedures that had “hamstrung the town’s ability to provide an efficient and effective system of control and operation … ”

In the town’s most recent financial review for fiscal year 2017, the accounting firm Roselli, Clark & Associates of Woburn wrote that Hatfield “continues to struggle to address the issues that have plagued it for at least the last decade as many aspects of the financial operations continue to operate at an unacceptable level.”

Last month, voters were asked at a special Town Meeting to plug a $315,000 gap in the town’s 2018 and 2017 budgets by transferring money from various accounts and by making cuts to the current spending plan, including nearly $32,000 from the School Department. The money was needed to cover operating deficits in the previous year’s budget identified by the state Department of Revenue.

Laura Lee Bertram, who was elected the town’s treasurer and collector in 2015, submitted her resignation this week, citing long hours and the Select Board’s failure to provide her with enough support staff. Bertram had been the subject of a recall petition that was circulating in town aimed at removing her from office, but told the Gazette in an interview this week that her office had resolved most of the fiscal woes that have plagued the town. She said the financial problems reside elsewhere.

There is bound to be finger-pointing and blame placed on others, and town officials have vowed for years to fix the mess, albeit unsuccessfully. In June 2015, the town revamped its financial team after turnover in key positions. Derek Geser was appointed the full-time accountant in what was formerly a part-time position.

In addition, Bertram was elected to serve as both the town treasurer and collector in May after first being hired on an interim, part-time basis. The town also secured assistance from a private consultant, Baystate Municipal Accounting Group of Maynard, to help sort out its financial affairs.

We believe the town has not gone far enough to improve its financial responsibilities in two key areas: making the town treasurer and collector position an appointed rather than an elected position, and providing the town’s financial team with the resources it needs to do its job effectively and properly. Changes in both areas have been identified as essential by financial experts familiar with Hatfield.

As one outside accounting firm put it, the practice of appointing the treasurer and collector would allow the town to attract a larger pool of qualified applicants for what is a clerical and administrative job and eliminate a selection process that becomes “one of popularity instead of one of qualification.”

However, town voters have repeatedly rejected proposals to appoint, rather than elect, the town treasurer and collector. The Select Board on Tuesday discussed bringing it back to Town Meeting for yet another vote, and we support that.

Furthermore, it is clear that no matter who has been on the job in Hatfield, the resources for managing its books are far from adequate. Hatfield operates on a $9.7 million annual budget, but unlike most other small towns its size, it also manages the finances of its own school district in an era of increasingly complex financial reporting requirements. More staff are needed.

These are vital investments in the town’s fiscal health. Town residents need to support these changes, so that those safeguarding taxpayers’ dollars have the proper resources to do the job — so the town is no longer a municipal poster child of how not to balance a budget.