Ferrisburgh board planning to cut treasurer hours

FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh selectboard is moving toward cutting hours for the position of town treasurer as it prepares its 2017-2018 budget, the latest sign of its discontent with the work of town’s elected incumbent treasurer.
The board also on Jan. 17 discussed with its auditor what he called accounting deficiencies, and changed the town’s credit card policy to give the board, not the treasurer, the authority to issue or cancel town credit cards or make changes on cards being used by cardholders.
The credit card decision follows a dispute with Treasurer Garrit Smits over his move, supported by the previous policy, to raise credit card limits for himself and road foreman John Bull. Smits told the board in December and also told the Independent that doing so made some purchases more efficient, and he followed a policy that he wrote on the town’s behalf.
But board members were upset that raising those limits violated another provision of the policy, that purchases be restricted to less than $1,000, and that Smits did not notify them of the decision.
“We felt blindsided,” said Board Chairwoman Loretta Lawrence.
The board and Smits have long been at odds over his working hours, which the board alleges are irregular and which Smits, who was elected in 2014 to a term that expires in March, said were unfairly cut a year ago.
As an elected official, the Ferrisburgh treasurer does not answer directly to the board, but to voters. But the board does set the budget and pay for the treasurer and town clerk, pay that is based on hours worked.
Lawrence and town auditors are on the record as saying that they believe Smits is not working enough hours. Both are concerned the town clerk and the assistant clerk/treasurer are being asked to pick up slack for Smits, according to selectboard minutes and to Lawrence.
“We need those hours, which we don’t have right now,” Lawrence said, adding that last week, “We’ve had several instances where I’ve had to be contacted with late bills. It’s a pattern.”
Repeated efforts to reach Smits by phone, email and text between Wednesday and Friday last week were unsuccessful. In the past he has maintained he has served residents well and saved the town money by redoing some contracts. He has also said the selectboard’s 2015 reduction of his hours (first from 40 to 30 hours per week and then a restoration back to 35) has made it hard for him to complete his work, and the board has singled him out for criticism.
The board is now looking at 35 hours a week of accounting work in the town offices, but at splitting those hours: 20 or less for a treasurer and the remainder for a bookkeeper or office assistant to make sure all work gets done.
“We’re finalizing a budget and we’re trying to see the needs of the office,” Lawrence said. “There are a certain number of hours you need to make the office function on a given day. And we’ve got to figure out what is the best way to do that, and we’re working on that in our budget.”
Even if budgeted separately, Lawrence said the treasurer and new position could be merged.
“There is the possibility that this is the same person,” she said.
Lawrence was asked if it was unlikely that same person would be Smits if he were re-elected in March — whether Smits plans to run is a question that he would have been posed for this article.
Lawrence agreed it was not likely.
“I would say yes, it’s a fair question, and a fair answer,” she said.
The selectboard also at its meeting last week discussed what Lawrence called a “management letter” from RHR Smith & Co., which is performing the audit of Ferrisburgh’s 2015-2016 fiscal year, and met with auditor Ron Smith.
That letter, labeled a draft, claimed RHR Smith found “deficiencies” in Ferrisburgh’s bookkeeping:
•  Two account balances “were not recorded on the trial balance at year end.”
•  “Funds received from a tax sale of $19,178.78 were deposited in the bank in January of 2016, but this deposit was not properly recorded in the general ledger at the time of receipt. This issue remained unresolved on Sept. 13, 2016.”
•  “At the time of fieldwork various general ledger accounts including cash, payroll tax liabilities and other various accounts did not reconcile. These accounts were still being reconciled by client at field work time.”
• “Deposits were taking longer than a reasonable period of time upon collection of the Town to depositing in the Town’s bank account for use. Some of the deposits were significant.”
On Jan. 17, Smith, board members, town auditors and residents discussed what Lawrence called “serious concerns” about the town’s fiscal management; assistant treasurer Pam Cousino drew praise from Smith and the board during the discussion.
Lawrence said the town’s overall financial picture remains healthy, but Smith, who estimated the town needed about 100 hours per week total in the office to conduct business, and the letter raised “a lot of red flags” about fiscal management.
“We weren’t totally surprised, but we can’t continue on this path. We’ve got to get a handle on this,” Lawrence said. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers.”
The Ferrisburgh selectboard is also looking at writing the town’s first charter, one that would make clerk and treasurer appointed, not elected, positions, and give the board authority over town officials. Residents would have to approve it.
 “We’re moving forward with creating a town charter,” Lawrence said. 

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