WELLFLEET — Nick Robertson arrived as the new town accountant in April. He is leaving on Dec. 9. He will return to the assistant accountant role he previously held in Provincetown.
Robertson, who lives in Truro, submitted his resignation two weeks ago, said Town Administrator Rich Waldo in a phone interview on Dec. 5. Robertson will be leaving on the same day as Assistant Town Accountant Jane Tesson, who is retiring after 27 years at town hall.
“When I took this job, I knew it was going to be tough — and it is,” said Waldo, who took over the town administrator job last spring in the middle of a financial mess that Robertson has been helping to manage. “I was hoping to have Nick alongside us for the long haul. But I respect Nick, and I want him to be happy.”
Robertson did not return calls seeking comment for this story, but his reasons for leaving, according to Waldo, include the fact that Provincetown has more staff in its accounting department. Provincetown has a director of finance who oversees the assistant accountant, treasurer, tax collector, human resources officer, and assistants. Robertson will earn $88,367 in Provincetown; he was making $85,000 in Wellfleet.
“The support is valuable because you don’t have to come to work and be the only one to get everything done,” Waldo said.
Losing two top people in any department is hard, but for Wellfleet it’s a real blow. The town has not been able to get its free cash account certified since 2019. Free cash is unrestricted leftover money from the previous fiscal year. It must be certified by the state Dept. of Revenue before it can be reallocated and spent. Before that can happen, the town’s books must be in order.
Wellfleet is still working with a temporary accountant, Lisa Souve, who started sorting out the town’s financial mess in spring 2021. She and the town’s auditors, Powers & Sullivan, have said they’ve corrected a mountain of accounting errors made in 2019 and 2020. They are now focused on untangling the town’s books from fiscal 2021, Waldo said. It’s taking longer than expected.
The Dept. of Revenue has ordered Wellfleet to have its ledgers audited before the DOR will certify the free cash account for the years 2020 through 2022. The town is now almost halfway through fiscal 2023.
Wellfleet’s finance department is digging out from years of incompetency, poor training, and high turnover. In 2020, a rat’s nest of accounting errors emerged after Gene Ferrari, who served as town accountant for one year, was fired. The new accountant, Heather Michaud, lasted only a few months before leaving in April 2021. Michaud told the select board about alarming discrepancies in the town’s books and asked Powers & Sullivan to detail the errors in a management letter.
The firm, which has audited Wellfleet’s books since 1996, did not issue a management letter with its fiscal 2019 audit. The company’s audit manager, Michael Nelligan, said later that he wanted to give the town another year to implement new accounting software. “We’ll see how next year’s audit goes,” he told the select board in June 2021.
“I would have recommended that the auditor’s contract be terminated immediately and that its malpractice carrier be notified that the town may have a substantial claim against its insured,” wrote retired attorney and former Wellfleeter Buddy Perkel, who now lives in Provincetown, in a May 2022 letter to the Independent.
The management letter Powers & Sullivan produced with its fiscal 2020 audit reported a “material weakness” in the town’s internal controls — the most serious finding possible in an audit. Monthly reconciliations between the treasurer’s office, accounting office, and the bank hadn’t been done since 2018. Ledger entries did not include adequate supporting documentation, the town’s purchase orders were paid without the proper paperwork, and the town was vulnerable to theft and fraud because of poor accounting practices. But the auditors did not find evidence of malfeasance.
The auditors were able to reconcile most of a $5-million difference between the treasurer’s balance and the town’s general ledger balances in the fiscal 2020 audit, the Independent reported in June 2021. But an “unknown variance” of $765,000 was reported by Nelligan to remain out of balance at the time.
Souve and Mary McIsaac, another temporary accountant working on the snafu, told the Independent in September that they had tracked all but $100,000 of the variance to entries that had not been recorded properly. Waldo said at the time that the town has decided simply to write off that amount.
Robertson was the first permanent town accountant Wellfleet hired after Michaud left in 2021. Now the accounting department’s door is revolving again.
Unlike Provincetown, Wellfleet has no finance director; the office includes a treasurer, a collector, and assistants. Wellfleet Principal Clerk Jeanne MacLauchlan retired two months ago.
Waldo said he is now interviewing candidates for the position of human resources director. He will get a few more gray hairs from the stress of an empty accounting office, he said, but added that he has found accountant Ann Christen, who is coming out of retirement from Brewster to work two days a week as the assistant accountant.
Souve will stay on only until mid-January to work on the 2021 audit. She may be able to pick up some day-to-day town accounting duties as well, Waldo said.
Wellfleet’s administrators have been promising that the free cash will be certified, and that has still not happened. On the plus side, no purchases or planned projects require use of the free cash until the spring 2023 town meeting, Waldo said.
“I’m hoping by the end of the year we get the 2021 audit complete, and once that audit is complete we will send the DOR our fiscal year 2020 and 2021 audits and our balance sheet for 2022,” he said. “I’m hoping free cash will be ready by the end of February.”
There is a national shortage of municipal accountants. The positions are even harder to fill in remote areas with high housing costs. Towns end up “poaching” staff from other neighboring towns, Waldo said.