Outgoing Hatfield treasurer says financial problems don’t stem from her office

  • Hatfield Town Hall KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

HATFIELD — The town collector and treasurer, who on Friday resigns from both positions, says her office has successfully dealt with most of the long-running problems that have plagued the town’s financial practices.

“There are financial issues in the town of Hatfield, but my office is pretty current,” Laura Lee Bertram said Tuesday.

Bertram, who was elected to both positions in May 2015, submitted a resignation letter to the town clerk on Monday. She said the reason was that she was working 65 hours a week and sometimes 20 days without a day off.

“I am confident I am leaving the treasurer/ collector offices in a good place,” Bertram said.

But resident Robert Flaherty, who launched a recall petition aimed at removing Bertram from office, said her decision to resign is a good development for the town.

“I believe this is one of the best things that could happen to the financial team,” Flaherty said. “This moves us in the right direction.”

Looking to the future

The Select Board on Tuesday discussed the hiring of Baystate Municipal Accounting Group to take over the treasurer and collector duties until those positions can be filled again.

“To keep the ball rolling, to hit the ground running on Monday,” Chairman Brian Moriarty said.

The town still has not sent out bills for taxes due Feb. 1 and May 1, and Moriarty said state Rep. Peter Kocot has filed a bill that would allow the town to request payment on those bills within 30 days of issuing them. He said he expects that legislation to pass this week, allowing the town to then print and send out bills.

Board members also talked about voting to place the treasurer and collector positions on the ballot for town elections, which they will do at a future meeting. Members, however, said they hoped voters might take up a warrant article this year at Town Meeting to make the positions appointed rather than elected.

“This could be an opportunity for the town to look into a different way for filling the treasurer/collector position,” Moriarty said.

Hatfield voters have previously voted against those changes, which Moriarty has said the state’s Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services has recommended to improve the town’s financial records.

“I do agree we might have to look at other options,” board member Edmund Jaworski said. “But, of course, bottom line is it’s up to the town whether they want to go that way.”

Voters at a special Town Meeting recently agreed to plug a $315,000 gap in the town’s 2018 and 2017 budgets by transferring money from stabilization accounts and making cuts to the current year’s budget. Bertram said the problems that created this deficit, as well as ones identified in a recent audit by certified public accountants Roselli, Clark & Associates, of Woburn, reside elsewhere.

She said many of the issues identified in the audit center on cash reconciliation not being done in a timely manner, with the appointed accountant, Derek Geser, who is supervised by the Select Board, still doing work on transactions from summer 2016.

Efforts reach Geser by phone and email Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Lary Grossman, chairman of the Hatfield Redevelopment Authority, told the Gazette in an email that despite many years of unfavorable audits, the town’s financial problems still have not been resolved.

“(Bertram) certainly did inherit a mess — both her predecessor and the Board of Selectmen has responsibility for that,” Grossman wrote. “The Board of Selectmen argue for appointed offices, but they appointed the accountant and the situation worsened.”

Bertram outlined numerous accomplishments in her office that illustrate she was doing well at her job, including nearly eliminating all tax title, collecting more than $1 million in back taxes and a tax collection rate between 98 and 99 percent

She has also implemented a new cash handling policy, a townwide postage meter that seals and meters mail and a payment processing system through lockbox payment services. She has brought in a remote deposit capture so all checks are scanned and deposited to the bank from Town Hall, opened a depository account to improve bank reconciliations and was preparing to install a folding and stuffing machine and Harper’s Payroll service.

“I will recommend that the town continue moving forward with these services,” Bertram said.

Flaherty, who collected about 200 signatures during the brief recall campaign, said residents he heard from during the process of collecting signatures informed him they had received demand letters from Bertram’s office, even though they had paid their tax bills.

“I don’t feel she knows what she’s doing in the job,” Flaherty said. “As a resident I feel she had a poor work ethic and didn’t treat the citizens of Hatfield with any type of respect.”

Bertram, who noted that Flaherty’s wife, Kerry, had run a write-in campaign against her last year, disputes Flaherty’s contentions, and notes she wasn’t aware of the recall effort at the time she decided to resign.

She said she has been working 65 hours a week for more than two years, and has had to postpone vacations because of the demands of the job.

She said the 30-hour-a-week collector and 24-hour-a- week treasurer positions she ran for had become “full-time positions plus,” and she made the Select Board and the Department of Revenue aware of this. Bertram said Hatfield’s office is more complicated than many because it handles not only municipal payroll and, but also that of the Hatfield public schools.

Bertram said she doesn’t feel she got the support she needed from the Select Board, with only one 35-hour assistant who handles payroll and a temporary appointee who works eight hours a week.

“I made it known that this office must be properly resourced two years ago,” Bertram said.

Scanlon & Associates of South Deerfield has recommended at least one additional full-time person, and Baystate Municipal Accounting Group of Maynard, providing assistance to her office, has suggested adding one or two more employees.

“There are challenges to being able to keep the operation moving forward,” Bertram said.

Bertram said she doesn’t have another job lined up and anticipates taking a break from work for the time being.

“It’s a work-life balance issue for me since help wasn’t coming anytime soon,” Bertram said.

Staff writer Dusty Christensen contributed to this report.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettwenet.com.