SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 5, 2013

Candidates spar over finance director

Wenham: Selectman says department is well-managed; challenger says it's in 'disarray'

By Jonathan Phelps
Staff writer

---- — Selectman candidate Jack Wilhelm says the town’s finance department is in “disarray” and he’d make it a top priority to hire back a full-time finance director, rather than continuing to use an outside consulting firm.

But incumbent Selectman Molly Martins says the department is being well-managed and supported by experienced staff. She says the outsourcing of the director’s position to a professional firm has been efficient and well-received at Town Hall.

That’s one of the key differences between the two candidates, who are vying for one available three-year term on the Board of Selectmen at the town’s annual election on Thursday, April 11. Voting will take place at Town Hall between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Wilhelm, 70, a former Finance Committee member, questions the adequacy of having an outside firm run the Finance Department while being required to be in town only 15 hours a week. Baystate Municipal Services Group was hired by the town after Finance Director Paula Bartlett resigned in December.

Wilhelm said the firm was hired to work until July, but the $25,000 contract has dried up and the firm has stopped its work. The town accountant and collector-treasurer are still in-house.

“You can’t function effectively without financial management, which is not being provided to the town accountant and treasurer,” he said. “There is nobody there.”

The department, he said, is “woefully understaffed” and lacking oversight.

“My task is trying to convince one or both of the selectmen to hire a permanent finance director like we had in the past and like most other towns have,” Wilhelm said. “They believe the money saved is well worth it, and I don’t. This experiment has been going on since December, and it is now April.”

Martins, 47, who is co-owner of a commercial construction and real estate development company, said she will continue to work to make sure the town is innovative in the management of its resources. The financial consultant provides the town services that it otherwise would be unable to afford, she said.

“We are purchasing the services for what we need and when we need it,” she said.

In fact, using a consulting firm could become a permanent solution, she said, noting that is has received support from both selectmen and the Finance Committee.

“The finance department is not in disarray,” Martins said. “That is an assessment being made on the basis of sound bites and innuendo.”

Wilhelm disagreed, saying he’d observed a huge stack of unopened mail in the office recently and is hearing about errors involving taxes.

But Martins said the town has hired additional staff to support the office, and the consultants and town administrator will be available for further support.

As for Martins’ priorities, she lists four: maintaining the character of the town, providing excellent municipal services at the lowest cost, providing a quality education for children and keeping taxes down.

“My goal is providing the quality of services that people have come to expect and enjoy and providing a reasonable tax rate,” she said. “The solution is in our ability to find efficiencies through collaboration and innovation.”

Wilhelm said living in town for 39 years and his experience on the Finance Committee sets him apart as a candidate. He also said there has been a deteriorating relationship with Hamilton that needs to be repaired. He said it was a big mistake for Wenham to back out of the shared emergency dispatch center, which left Hamilton to figure out how to pay for it on their own.

He noted that Hamilton recently decided to opt out of a shared Council on Aging director.

“Both towns should have stayed or both towns should have gone,” he said. “We have joint schools, and other services need to get along and cooperate.”

Martins said the two towns are collaborating well. She said Hamilton decided to hire a full-time Council on Aging director, instead of the shared part-time director.

“The two towns and schools have never worked better together,” she said.

Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or jphelps@salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.

MOLLY MARTINS

Age: 47

Occupation: Co-owner of Martins Construction Co., a commercial construction and real estate development company

Family: Married, five children

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Boston College and MBA from Bentley

Political experience: Selectman for three years, chairman all three years. Serves on Wenham Affordable Housing Trust.

JACK WILHELM

Age: 70

Occupation: Senior vice president and chief financial officer of Emerson Hospital

Family: Married, three children

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Merrimack College, MBA from Babson, CPA certificate

Political experience: Finance Committee for 10 years, six of them as chairman; Board of Assessors for six years, four years as chairman