WELLFLEET — After a four-and-a-half-month delay in the annual town meeting and the still unexplained dismissal of the town accountant, Wellfleet has finally set its property tax rate for fiscal 2021 at $7.86 per thousand, a 1.4-percent increase over last year’s $7.75 rate.
Fall tax bills, which normally go into the mail around Oct. 1, were expected to be mailed by Nov. 24, with payment due by Dec. 24.
The town accountant, Gene Ferrari Jr., was dismissed by the new town administrator, Maria Broadbent, on Sept. 22, just 10 days after the delayed annual town meeting, when the fiscal 2021 budget was approved. Budget approval is the first necessary step in setting the tax rate.
Assessor Nancy Vail attributed the lateness of this fall’s tax bills to Ferrari’s dismissal. “Most of the paperwork that needs to be done is done by the town accountant,” Vail said.
No reason has been given for Ferrari’s dismissal, which took place on the last day of his one-year contract. When he asked for the reason, he said, “I was told that she [Broadbent] doesn’t need a reason.”
To replace his work in the rate-setting process, Wellfleet brought in Eastham Finance Director Rich Bienvenue, a C.P.A. and Wellfleet resident, to temporarily help out.
“I think, under the circumstances, we got things out as quickly as we could, and things will be better going forward,” said Town Treasurer Miriam Spencer. The delay in receipt of tax revenue has created a cash crunch requiring the town to scramble. “We considered short-term borrowing,” Spencer said, “but we’ll be able to get through this with some internal borrowing, and we should be fine.”
Despite the positive spin that town officials give the situation, it seems clear that the work might have been done more quickly. Eastham held its delayed annual town meeting on Sept. 26, two weeks later than Wellfleet’s. But Eastham’s fall tax bills were mailed on Oct. 22, more than a month ago.
Broadbent praised Bienvenue’s work and cited the complexity of the rate-setting process as a main cause of the delay.
“You have to get your tax rate approved by the state Dept. of Revenue,” she said. “The Dept. of Revenue gives you a series of forms that you have to fill out, and every number in those forms has lots of calculations and numbers that feed into it. Rich Bienvenue was on my staff to make sure that all those background numbers were right and that what we submitted … was the best information we could put together. It’s a little more complicated than doing your taxes.”
Wellfleet has been advertising for a new town accountant since last month, and Broadbent said that applications are coming in. She expects that the position will “absolutely” be filled within a few months, she said.
But the market for municipal finance officers is unusually tight.
“Good luck [to Broadbent], but I think she’s going to have an uphill battle,” said George Malloy, a C.P.A. in Brewster who formerly practiced in Wellfleet. “She may be able to get someone who wants to retire and move down here, but they won’t be a long-term solution. They’ll be here for several years, and then they’ll retire and we have the same problem.”
Bernie Lynch, a principal of the municipal head-hunting firm Community Paradigm Associates, agreed that finding a town accountant these days is difficult.
“The real crisis is in municipal finance,” said Lynch. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time. Communities are having trouble filling positions for accountants and treasurers. People want someone who understands municipal finance, but there are not a lot of positions. So, there are not a lot of people in that profession.”
Malloy said understanding municipal finance is a highly specialized skill.
“You can have the best intentions and be a very good accountant,” he said, “but being a good accountant and being a good municipal accountant are two completely different things. A good municipal accountant should be paid around $150,000 or $175,000 a year — as much as, if not more than, the town administrator.”
Wellfleet’s job posting on the website of the Mass. Municipal Auditors’ & Accountants’ Association says that the salary range for the town accountant position is $90,000 to $100,000. The qualifications include “a minimum of five to seven years general ledger accounting experience, preferably in the municipal field and experience with municipal financial software applications.”
Malloy warned that financial software can vary from place to place.
“If there’s someone from another state who wants to take the job and then retire down here,” he said, “chances are they will have no idea what the system Wellfleet uses is.”