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Selectboard considers changing funding, structure of town's financial offices

Recent lapses may lead to adjustments in Treasurer's role

PUTNEY—In response to the Selectboard and Town Manager’s continued frustration with Town Clerk and Treasurer Anita Coomes’s failure to complete her duties — and to avoid future incidents — they are considering changing the funding and structure of the town’s financial offices.

The proposal would keep the Treasurer position an elected one, but reassign most of the duties to a part-time bookkeeper, interviewed and hired by the Selectboard. This would provide another layer of oversight of the town’s finances.

Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard expressed her wish for the bookkeeper to have extensive electronic banking experience.

During the Nov. 30 regular Board meeting, Stoddard introduced the proposal for the Selectboard’s consideration, but noted more input is needed from the Board, voters, and the affected workers in the financial offices, including Coomes.

“Anita has said she may retire,” at the end of her term — Town Meeting 2017 — but hasn’t confirmed this, Stoddard said.

Coomes has faced challenges as Treasurer and Town Clerk, including failing to submit multiple years’ worth of dog licenses to the state and not filing multiple payroll-related tax forms to the IRS and the state tax department.

Coomes has said she did file the forms but that they “didn’t get through” and has suggested that the issue was the way forms are filed.The errors have cost the town thousands of dollars in penalties, elicited numerous complaints from residents about the dog fees, earned the town a finding in its recent yearly audit, and added to Stoddard’s workload as she navigated and corrected the errors and took over some of Coomes’s duties to avoid more issues.

Under the current system, because Coomes is an elected official, when she commits these errors, “the Selectboard and Town Manager have little ability to do anything about it,” Stoddard said.

One possible way to avoid future mishaps would be by sharply reducing the Treasurer’s duties, making it a stipend position, and transferring the tasks to a regular paid bookkeeper. Stoddard said many other Vermont towns have come to a similar conclusion, and the Selectboard is empowered to make this change.

Another way out is to alter the town’s charter, making the Treasurer an appointed position. The problem with this, Stoddard said, is Putney has no town charter, so it would have to pay a lawyer to write one.

Town Meeting would vote whether to approve the charter, and then it would have to get passed by the Legislature — a costly, time-consuming process, Stoddard said.

“It can be tedious, but should not be totally off the table as an option,” she noted.

Members of the Selectboard agreed to discuss this with the Town Clerk and the members of the financial department and to explore all options.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #388 (Wednesday, December 21, 2016). This story appeared on page C3.

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