WELLFLEET — The problems with the town’s financial management, which two temporary accountants are now trying to untangle, began years ago and mushroomed during former Town Administrator Dan Hoort’s tenure.
Interviews with former staff and town volunteers described Hoort as “checked out,” “hands off,” and not helpful when it came to addressing critical issues in the town’s financial operations.
Hoort, the town administrator from 2016 to 2020, lives in Provincetown. Reached this week, he acknowledged that “there were a couple of hires I wished I did not make.”
But, Hoort added, the real problem is that the town has a bad reputation among the pool of potential municipal staff members. Wellfleet doesn’t attract qualified candidates, he said. He tried to manage the accounting department himself during his last year on the job, when the town accountant was Gene Ferrari. Ferrari was ultimately fired in September 2020 by Hoort’s successor, Maria Broadbent. Hoort said the last good hire he made was Town Accountant Connie Boulos, who stayed from 2017 to 2019.
“The select board has to do some soul searching and decide why Wellfleet is not such a great place to work,” Hoort said.
A staffing shortage, high turnover, and a leadership vacuum are all still in play today. The question is how all this started and how the pattern can be reversed.
Wellfleet is operating with an interim town administrator and two interim accountants, after both Town Accountant Heather Michaud and Town Administrator Broadbent resigned on the same day, April 23, having not completed the town meeting warrant or the fiscal 2022 budget. Since then, the select board has been meeting several days a week to address the chaos. The warrant did go to the printer at the deadline on May 21, after town meeting was put off for weeks to gain time.
The town’s operating budget has been set at $21 million for fiscal 2022. Important purchases, such as a wastewater treatment system for a future affordable housing project at 95 Lawrence Road, are on the warrant for the June 26 town meeting.
The crisis in the accounting department, flagged by auditors (see separate story on page A11), will have both short- and long-term consequences. In the short term, about a million dollars in free cash cannot be used to pay any town expenses. Accounting errors in 2020 resulted in the state Dept. of Revenue refusing to certify the town’s free cash account.
The account will be certified as soon as the errors are resolved; the money is there, it just cannot be touched, said Charlie Sumner, the interim town administrator. Another pool of available cash in the stabilization fund can serve in the interim. By the time a fall town meeting comes, the free cash may be available, Sumner added.
In the long term, however, the problems run deep and will require competent and committed staff, something that Wellfleet has not had for a while.
In 2018, Marianne Nickerson, the town tax collector, became the last of the longtime financial employees to retire. In 2016, Marilyn Crary, the town accountant for decades, retired at age 87, along with Dawn Rickman, the longtime clerk and treasurer.
In a perfect world, all of them would have been replaced by new people in it for the long haul. But that did not happen. Instead, Rickman’s replacement, Town Clerk Joe Powers, left after three years in 2019, and accountant Connie Boulos lasted two. Treasurer and Tax Collector Rosemarie Moriarty stayed for one year, also departing in 2019.
By the summer of 2019, when Carrie Mazerolle was hired as town accountant, the whole department was filled with rookies, she said. She had to transfer the accounting data from old software to a new accounting system called VADAR. She was overwhelmed, she said, and had little support.
“It was a mess when I got there, and I said, I cannot do this,” Mazerolle said. “I didn’t have any transition team at all. Connie Boulos came in for one day and showed me how to use the system, but that was it. Dan Hoort, at the time, was not a big help. He had checked out.”
When Mazerolle saw a job posting for an accountant in Duxbury, she jumped at it. She left after one month in Wellfleet and has been working in Duxbury ever since.
Next, Hoort hired Ferrari, who was the only applicant. “By then, I had been running the accounting department for six months while also being the town administrator,” Hoort said. “It was impossible.”
Hoort’s previous position was director of municipal finance for Provincetown for six years. He is also a certified public accountant.
Hoort would not comment on Ferrari. But it’s clear that Ferrari was failing. Before Broadbent fired him, he was not able to set the tax rate in the fall and tax bills were late. “He was really struggling and [Eastham Assistant Town Administrator] Rich Bienvenue had to help us,” said Miriam Spencer, the town treasurer since 2019.
Usually, free cash (surplus money left over from the year before) is certified within a few months after the end of the fiscal year, so it can be used to cover expenses in the following year. But preparing the accounting data for the Dept. of Revenue’s free cash review proved too difficult for Ferrari, Broadbent, and Michaud.
Finance committee chair Fred Magee said he is not surprised the town is so off course, given the turnover in the accounting department, the town administrator’s revolving door, and the pandemic.
But, Magee said, the finance committee doesn’t have oversight authority.
“In Wellfleet, by charter, we are advisory,” said Magee, adding that his committee relies on town officials to tell them what is going on.
Ira Wood, a member of the finance committee, said it met only once with Ferrari. Usually, the town administrator attends finance committee meetings. “But we didn’t see much of Dan Hoort at all that last year,” Wood said.
“I want to acknowledge that I’ve made mistakes, but you’re only as good as the employees you hire,” Hoort said.
Hoort said the select board needs to focus on improving working conditions and stop being intrusive and unsupportive of staff. Though Hoort refused to name names, he said that, more than once, department heads who were not happy with his attempts to discipline or correct them would go right to the select board, his bosses, and complain about him.
“I feel for Maria Broadbent,” Hoort said. “I knew she was going into an untenable situation.”