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359WVN #309: Missing Wayland funds

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  • waylandvoters1
    Aug 20 6:49 PM
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      Dear Wayland Voter,

      Police are investigating a possible case of missing town funds. It wouldn't be the first in recent Wayland history.

      Also in this newsletter: Officials look favorably on a new meals tax and more aggressive spending of Community Preservation funds.

      WAYLAND'S DISAPPEARING FUNDS

      Police are investigating activities by a former employee in the treasurer's office. Although town officials won't say more than that, Dale Sicotte's employment has been terminated. The possibility of missing funds was discovered by routine audit, according to Town Administrator Fred Turkington. Sicotte was a town employee from 1991 to 2009.

      Missing funds is not a new phenomenon to Wayland, which suggests the need for more rigorous auditing and tighter financial procedures. Town administrator Fred Turkington told the Board of Selectmen on Aug. 17 that cash management policies have been strengthened and there will be some random audits in areas of heavy cash transactions, especially in areas where there may not be a receipt.

      A former administrative assistant in the Water Department, Kimberly Stevens-Karas, was arraigned in Framingham District Court in February 2009 on two charges of larceny over $250. On July 27, 2009, Stevens-Karas submitted a written waiver of rights indicating she would plead guilty. Wayland Police Chief Robert Irving said she has made restitution of the funds and is now on probation. The total was $7,770.84.

      WVN examined the Incident Report submitted by the Wayland Police Department, which indicates that the police were notified repeatedly by residents of Washington State of possible larceny by Stevens-Karas, who now resides in Washington State. She was employed by the town from Nov. 8, 2004 until she resigned on Nov. 8, 2006. She was solely responsible for submitting all bills for the Town of Wayland Water Department for payment.

      The first notification of possible larceny was received by the police in November 2007, but an investigation by the police and town finance department was unable to locate the possible theft, according to the Incident Report.

      A call in July 2008 alerted the police that the defendant had allegedly used funds from the Water Department to pay her home utility bills and that Karas had received a refund of approximately $5,800 in her own name from an overpayment of her account.

      Armed with this information, investigation by the town found that a Town of Wayland check for $6,186.53 was received by NSTAR Nov. 10, 2006 for the account number belonging to the defendant, who lived in Wayland. On Nov. 22, NSTAR sent a refund check of $5,827.36 to an address in Everett, WA, which was cashed with a Stevens-Karas signature that resembles those on Wayland documents. That $6,186.53 was the amount of a valid NSTAR account paid by the town.

      Further, the Incident Report states that on Nov. 14, NSTAR had received a call from the "customer of record" stating that "a payment was made in the amount of $6186.53, requested to close account and have refund check of $5827.36 mailed to new address in Washington State."

      Additional investigation by the town found a Water Department check to Keyspan (National Grid) for $6,429.91 to cover six statements. Five were town accounts, and the sixth was the defendant's home account, which was paid $1,584.31 although the amount owed was $300.88.

      In prior statements to the investigating officer, Stevens-Karas said that she was "not perfect, and it was not intentional." She said she sometimes processed the Water Department bills from home.

      The issuance of checks to personal accounts detailed above occurred prior to installation of the town's current accounting system.

      -- Molly Upton


      OFFICIALS SEEK NEW REVENUE SOURCES

      There's a good possibility that voters will be asked to approve a new tax on meals bought in Wayland.

      And officials are looking at new ways to use Community Preservation Act money collected as a surcharge on property tax bills.

      The Board of Selectmen met on Monday Aug. 17 with members of the Finance Committee and the Community Preservation Committee. Many cities and towns, including those close to Wayland, are considering taking advantage of a new state law to collect additional Massachusetts Meal Tax revenues.

      Under the new law municipalities can collect an additional three-quarters of one percent tax on applicable purchases such as takeout sandwiches and restaurant meals.

      Selectmen and FinCom members didn't formally endorse the idea but clearly leaned toward it. Selectman Sue Pope said she believed in putting matters like this to voters.

      The additional tax is estimated to bring in $100,0000-$200,000 a year. Selectman Michael Tichnor called the money one way to avoid layoffs. FinCom member Cherry Karlson saw it as perhaps compensating for losses in state aid.

      The officials pictured the tax as a small burden on residents who buy prepared food: 75 cents on a dinner check of $100, for example. If neighboring communities adopt the tax there would be no competitive disadvantage.

      The selectmen are planning a fall Special Town Meeting to ask voters to approve large new debt for a new high school. The meals tax measure could be on the same warrant.

      USING CPA FUNDS

      Community Preservation Committee members explained to the selectmen how pending legislation could affect how Wayland uses the funds. This has been a contentious matter in Wayland.

      When voters approved using CPA funds to help pay for artificial turf at the high school football field, taxpayers filed suit, saying that the Community Preservation Act didn't allow that use. The suit became moot before it could be decided, though a judge's subsequent decision in a Newton case supported the plaintiffs' argument.

      Under the Act Wayland adds a surcharge of about 1.5 percent to property tax bills. The law specifies that the money be used for acquiring open space, historic preservation and affordable housing. CPA funds helped to create the new housing development at the former Nike missile site in north Wayland and to preserve historic railroad artifacts and gravestones in town, for example. All expenditures require Town Meeting approval.

      As Preservation Committee Chairman Jerry Heller explained, a coalition of the 140 communities that adopted preservation funds supports changes that the Legislature will consider soon. Among other things proposed modifications to the law would make it easier for communities to use CPA funds for recreation projects.

      Should the law change, voters can expect a strong push from advocates for more and better playing fields and other recreational opportunities. Those who supported Wayland's adoption of the tax early in the decade might advocate continuing to spend only as authorized in the original law.

      Opportunities to testify at public hearings on the proposed legislation are anticipated this fall at the State House.

      In any case, officials may consider a new way of spending the funds, by bonding purchases rather than outright acquisition. Wayland has a CPA reserve of $5.6 million to take advantage of opportunities that might arise suddenly, such as an offer of first refusal on a large desirable tract of land on the town's Open Space Plan. But half of the CPA-taxed municipalities have committed all funds collected.

      Heller said that the state has abandoned its policy of fully matching local contributions. The current match rate of 25 percent slows the replenishment of preservation funds.

      In an email Town Administrator Fred Turkington said bonding would curtail "hoarding" CPA funds. Some selectmen advocate more aggressive use of the money.

      Before the recent global financial meltdown FinCom members told Town Meeting that borrowing is the preferred method of financing capital expenditures.

      One man's hoarding can be another man's wise provision for a savings account.

      Voters may want to watch for developments in the near future.

      -- Michael Short

      WAYLAND UNEMPLOYMENT UP

      Wayland's unemployment jumped in June to 6.3 percent from 5.3 in May, a larger percentage rise than in many other communities. Wayland is also notable because it has made little effort to reduce expenditures since Town Meeting passed the budget in April, in contrast to Sudbury and Medfield, for example.

      WVN examined the peer towns selected by the Finance Committee. All showed increases in unemployment in June. Sudbury's unemployment rate rose to 6.6 percent from 6, while Weston reached 6 percent unemployment, up from 5.3.

      Carlisle's June rate of unemployment was 6.7 percent , up from 6.3. In Medfield it was 6.8 percent , up from 6.2.

      The South Shore has generally been harder hit than these MetroWest communities. Scituate had 7.5 percent unemployment in June, up from 6.8, while Cohasset was 7, up from 6.4. The complete list is at

      http://lmi2.detma.org/lmi/town_comparison.asp.

      Lynnfield's rate rose to 7.3 percent from 6.6%, and Sharon's unemployment rate in June was 7.6 compared with 7.0 in May.

      Statewide, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in June was 8.7 percent , up from 8.0 in May.

      One possible factor contributing to the rise in numbers compared with years past is the extension of unemployment benefits.

      Before 2009, the highest percentages of unemployment were last seen in 2003 and 2002. The previous high average percentage for a year in Wayland was 4.3 perccnt in 2002 and 2003. In 2003, Sudbury's average unemployment rate was 4.8 percent.

      SUDBURY INKS TEACHER CONTRACT

      Sudbury postponed until after April the budget portion of its town meeting, and recently announced a contract with its teachers that avoids previously proposed staff cuts. http://www.sudbury.k12.ma.us/

      Wayland is beginning the third and final year of its contract with teachers, while Sudbury's contract was up for negotiation.

      The Sudbury agreement in year one results in a reduction of the total salary/benefit expenditures, despite a 3 percent across the board salary increase. The plan also includes different health plan contributions and a freezing of the step and lane advancement. (Steps and lanes are increases for longevity and advanced degrees.) In year two, the step and lane salary advancement occurs, with those in the top step receiving a 2.5 percent increase. In year three, there is a 1 percent salary increase for those on the top step, but this is offset by suspension of tuition reimbursement.

      According to a press release, "This Agreement is expected to save in excess of approximately $4.1 million over the next three years compared to previous projections."

      Looking at the total picture for operation of Sudbury schools (k-8 only; the high school is a separate regional district), "An analysis of the total SPS (Sudbury Public Schools) budget including benefits, incorporating the new Agreement, projects increases as follows: FY 2010: 1.26%; FY 2011: 3.96%; and FY 2012: 4.48%." The Sudbury Finance Committee's original guideline was 4.5 percent annually.

      Sudbury's bus fees are $350 per child, maximum of $635 per family. Wayland charges $180 per child with a family maximum of $500.

      Both Medfield and Sudbury postponed consideration of the budget at town meeting until more information from the State was forthcoming.

      MEDFIELD CUTS BUDGET

      Medfield postponed its budget consideration at town meeting until June 1, when the Fiscal 2010 school budget was reduced in line with declining state funding and smaller enrollment. Medfield's Fiscal 10 school budget is a mere 0.88 percent more than in 09. The original target was 3 percent . In addition to a reduction of 13 full time equivalent staff, Medfield is adding new fees and increasing existing fees. See:

      http://email.medfield.net/~school/FY%2010%20BudgetMailer%20Final.pdf t

      LONGTIME LIBRARIAN, VOLUNTEER DIES

      WVN reports mainly on issue of interest to voters and taxpayers, but we try to fill gaps in other news coverage when we can.

      Therefore we report that Ann Pratt, remembered by colleagues as a "beloved" Wayland children's librarian, died on Aug. 4, a month after celebrating her 82nd birthday. The cause of death was given as complications of ALS.

      Mrs. Pratt was also active as a volunteer and served on the board of the Wayland Historical Society.

      A graduate of Brown University, she joined the library staff in 1972 as an assistant and retired in 1992 as head children's librarian. She continued to fill in at the library until 2008.

      "Mrs. Pratt had a thorough knowledge of the literature," former Wayland librarian Louise Brown recalled. "She developed an expertise in children's non-fiction books, selecting the library's materials in this area and participating in a professional children's non-fiction book review group. Mrs. Pratt loved the children who visited the Children's Room and made parents and children alike feel comfortable and welcome."

      She is survived by her husband, Dr. George Pratt Jr., and by a daughter, a son and two grandchildren.

      A memorial service will be announced.

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      Michael Short, Editor