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By Dick Charland
I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the front-page story headlined "Select board cuts town clerk wages by 25 percent" in The Valley Reporter of February 6, 2014. I believe this story must be addressed in two parts: first, the budget changes in the town clerk position, and second, the review taking place of the Duxbury's financial records.
The town has had the same individual serve in both positions of town clerk and town treasurer for a number of years; the most recent of these is the current town clerk. Prior to 2004, the compensation for both positions was almost identical 2002: clerk, $12,224.99; treasurer, $11,625.63; and 2003: clerk, $15,125; treasurer, $15,124. In 2004, a change was made and the difference in salaries changed dramatically. 2004: clerk, $27,097.72; treasurer, $4,686; and the variance has remained this way through 2013. The change was made, I am told, to reflect an allocation of time with the clerk at four days and the treasurer at one day.
The breakdown of the salaries is neither a comparable or equitable apportionment of compensation for the positions. Compensation for the treasurer's position has been 15 percent of the total from 2004 through 2013. There is, I suspect, a reason the split was calculated in this fashion. Vermont Municipal Employee's Retirement System (VMERS) requires a qualifying employee work a minimum of 24 or more hours a week. With both positions split at 50/50 neither position would qualify. Additionally, the larger salary in one position would allow for a greater benefit to accrue. If, in fact, the allocation of time was truly 4/5 and 1/5, why wouldn't the current salary split be clerk, $32,799; treasurer, $8,199?
In all of this discussion, the split in time appears to have no real basis in fact. I have reviewed town reports for the past seven years and there is no specificity as to the clerk being available only four days and the treasurer only one day. The town office hours are listed with no indication of specific time or day for either position. In fact, business under both positions has been conducted no matter the day or time.
In the article, the town clerk stated, "It's unclear to me how the board determined, without any study of the tasks that the clerk and treasurer perform, that the work of the clerk – and access to the town records-could be reduced...." I would like to remind the clerk that less than a year ago at the 2013 Town Meeting, he was questioned from the floor regarding his work in the office and he responded that he was unable to account or allocate how his time is spent in either position. The clerk explained that other than a period on Fridays when he prepared the bank deposit, his tasks were so varied every day that he could not provide a breakout of his time as clerk or treasurer. A review of both job tasks and the traffic through the office would more likely reflect wide gaps during office hours where no town business is conducted in either position.
Vermont requires that, once elected, a town clerk appoint one or more assistants, 24 V.S.A. § 1170, and that the assistant can perform the same functions as the town clerk in their absence, 24 V.S.A. § 963, 1171. It is important to note that the statute does not require the clerk and assistant be present at the same time; rather it states: "A municipal clerk is responsible for the official acts of any assistant appointed by him or her." I have confirmed this fact with a respected town clerk in another municipality (Milton).
We have been fortunate in having a qualified individual occupy the position of assistant clerk for a number of years with no disruption in the operation or function of the office when the clerk was unavailable. If everyone's concern is providing the best coverage, then the select board's suggestion at the December 19, 2013, meeting would meet that goal. After resigning as treasurer, the clerk reduced his work week to four days. His apprehension about adequate service to residents and the legal community appears to fall short when viewing his actions. If he feels so strongly about this, why would he close the office on Mondays when he could assign the assistant clerk to work that day? What purpose does it serve to have both in the office on the same day(s)?
I was perplexed when I read the town clerk's comment, "I'm not in agreement with..." detailing his assessment of the negative impact and inconvenience this change would make. The select board minutes of December 19, 2013, show that the clerk was in attendance at that meeting and he neither commented nor objected or offered an alternative.
I am not sure where the information was resourced regarding a loss of health insurance and retirement benefits in the article: "If Scott's hours are reduced to the equivalent of three days, or 24 hours a week, he loses his benefits including health and retirement benefits." An elected town official or employee who works more than 24 hours a week is eligible to participate in the VMERS, 24 V.S.A. § 5051 (10). I am really puzzled as to how a town clerk/treasurer would not be aware of this fact as it pertains not only to them but to all other town employees.
Additionally, though Duxbury has not participated in the VLCT insurance program, clerks and treasurers have been allowed to participate in the VLCT program if they work a minimum 17.5 hours. With all of the changes in the health insurance area, the town employees as well as the clerk have recently been enrolled in Vermont Health Connect and there has been no discussion of cuts to anyone's health care coverage.
The appointment of a new person to the position required our addressing the potential that different individuals would be holding each office. We used a similar metric 3/5, 2/5 instead of the 4/5, 1/5 advanced by the town clerk. The choice was neither arbitrary nor punitive and has a basis in fact.
After warning the vacancy, advertising and interviewing the two candidates, the select board appointed Kym Andrews to the position. Kym has with education and work experience in accounting and bookkeeping in both for-profit and nonprofit organizations including experience with the town's NEMRC accounting software. Kym has set the treasurer's office hours for Monday, 7:30-2:30, and by appointment. She is working from home as we resolve the practical problem of having only one computer in the town office.
Since accepting the position, Kym has reached out to treasurers in surrounding towns for insight and advice. Additionally, at a recent meeting of the Vermont Government Finance Officers Association that she and I attended, discussions with treasurers from other towns of similar size confirmed the need for a minimum of two days a week for the position.
In accordance with 24 V.S.A. § 1578, requiring the treasurer to settle with the auditors when resigning or retiring, the select board contracted with Batchelder Associates to do a preliminary assessment of the town's financial records. The results of that analysis prompted the select board to engage Batchelder to review 2011 and 2012 in addition to conducting the 2013 financial audit.
Duxbury incurred $1.752 million in expenses as a result of storm damage in 2011 and the town received reimbursement from FEMA and Vermont totaling $1.732 million. With our final reimbursement received 6/13 we are left with a balance of $228,142 on the $1.5 million line of credit we secured with Merchants Bank. We have requested from the former treasurer an answer to the question of what accounts for this balance for almost a year with no success.
When the note came due 10-31-13, we requested the former treasurer secure an extension. At the November 11, 2013, meeting he presented the select board with one for two months along with a copy of his letter of resignation. We have subsequently learned that the treasurer assured the bank, at a meeting in November, that the town would pay off the note at the end of 2013 when we completed collecting our property taxes. The treasurer's plan to accomplish this involved use of our Capital Reserve and escrow funds and procurement of Tax Anticipation Notes in 2014. The select board rejected this strategy when it was first proposed in September of 2013. We have since negotiated an extension through June 30, 2014, as we await the final audit results and work to a resolution.
We have received an interim report from the auditor and we have included it in the 2014 Town Report. I believe once the final 2011 through 2013 audit findings are scrutinized, sufficient information will be available to detail the failures in reporting, reconciliation and adherence to accepted accounting practices by the former treasurer. Additionally, I believe this will confirm the soundness of our budgeting two days for the treasurer's work.
Charland is chair of the Duxbury Select Board.