AYER — Money was on the minds of elected town officials Tuesday night. Newly elected Treasurer Stephanie Gintner met with selectmen to discuss best practices for handling the town’s money.
Selectmen Chairman Rick Gilles asked Gintner to consider instituting “sweep accounts,” which puts the town’s money to work overnight to earn interest and then is returned the next business day to the town’s accounts. “In some of these accounts, we have quite a bit of money in there and I wonder why we aren’t getting interest,” especially on larger balance accounts.
Without using specific figures, Gintner said much of the town’s money is in both North Middlesex Savings Bank, headquartered next to Town Hall on Main Street, and the nation’s largest bank, Bank of America. Why not try to keep the town’s banking business local, Gilles asked.
“Economic studies show that any large entity, if they bank locally, that money tends to go to the local community more,” Gilles said.
Gintner answered that her predecessors used Bank of America back when she worked as the assistant treasurer in 1991, and said the bank maintains a “good relationship” with the town. While Bank of America doesn’t pay the town interest on the funds it holds, in return it provides fee-free banking to the town and provides reports and accounts not otherwise available from other institutions that aren’t’ tooled specifically to handle governmental accounts.
Gintner said for the most part vendor and payroll account balances are “zero accounts” because she “only put in enough to cover bills and payroll.” The turnover time the money rests in the vendor/payroll account is “until people cash their checks.”
Selectman Gary Luca urged a fresh look at the bank next door, or with IC Federal Credit Union, another locally based bank. “I prefer to bank locally myself. You can almost put a little squeeze on Bank of America. I’d certainly go to North Middlesex Savings Bank if they can give it to you with no fees.”
Gilles suggested, too, investigating offerings at Fidelity Bank. “I don’t think they do a lot of governmental banking,” Gintner said. “I think they do 10 towns around us,” Gilles responded.
Gintner said she did get a rate from Fidelity and “it was about the same rate as the bank next door.” Selectman Frank Maxant said perhaps now’s the time to fire a “shot across the bow” at Bank of America, leveraging the selectmen’s wishes to reconsider BOA in favor of a local bank.
Maxant was pleased with the public interplay between the elected officials. “I’m very glad that you’re here for the public to see. The treasurer labors in obscurity but does a tremendous job managing our money.” Maxant said he’s a customer of North Middlesex Saving Bank, too, but added that in general terms for the town, it’s good to review Ayer government’s official banking practices.
Selectman Jim Fay asked why it can take three weeks for his checks to clear town accounts when making payment to Town Hall. “Any time a check is sitting on a desk or a desk drawer is a concern to me.” Fay stressed that a DOR review of the town’s financial practices revealed the town needed to make strides to make “timely deposits” of sums received.
Gintner said she’s hamstrung in that regard. “When people give me money, it goes into that bank that week. It’s up to the departments to turn in their money. Sometimes you don’t get a lot of cooperation.”
Luca asked for monthly reports to the selectmen of sums in the town’s various accounts. Luca also asked for a listing of properties taken by the town for nonpayment of taxes. Gintner said such data is routinely provided to the selectmen’s office, as well as the accountant and assessor’s offices.
Two of four pieces of property the town brought before the Land Court to pursue takings were paid off. “Good for them,” said Luca.
Why not mandate direct deposit for all town employees, Gilles asked. Gintner said old habits die hard for longer-term employees. “They like their check. They like going to the bank.” Giles replied: “I’m going not on what people like or don’t like” but that he wants to explore efficiencies and cost savings. Fay said perhaps such a change should be considered through contract negotiations with the unions.
“Any time you have to touch paper, if you can just minimize that, you can get other things accomplished and better service can be delivered,” said Gilles.
Gilles also noted that some $50,000 was realized by converting to quarterly tax bills several years back. Why not allow taxpayers to pay online to improve cash flow for the town?” Gilles suggested UniBank’s “UniPay” program. “We’re reconfiguring our website. This is a great time to review our offerings.”
Gintner said a lot of people “come in and want to pay over the counter” and that Bank of America offers a “lock box” feature for payment of taxes to a Bank of America account. “Even if people paid online, we’d still have to manage the accounts,” said Gintner.
Gilles suggested checks be scanned and faxed to banks, permitting the instantaneous draw of the funds from taxpayers’ accounts, as is now permitted under banking regulations, versus the old-fashioned deposit and wait for the check to clear.
Gintner said she’s meeting with Bank of America later this month to consider that technology for the treasurer’s office.
“The more options for the consumer, which is the taxpayer, the better,” said Luca. “I mean we are in a service business.” Luca suggested all payments to the town be handled electronically. Gintner responded that the town would have to move to a town collector instead of having a singularly tasked tax collector.
Luca asked if there are a lot of bounced checks these days. Yes, said Gintner, and it’s something she and Assistant Treasurer Melissa Doig are chasing down. “The deputy collector has tried to collect some. It’s hard now….”
“No, you need to be more aggressive,” said Luca. Gilles agreed, noting that online payments would allow taxpayers to pay with a debit or credit card.
Before Gintner left the table, she shared her opinion on how town funds are spent. “The way the budgets are spent … I see things…in all my years…. just the way people spend the monies in their budgets. I see a lot of waste.”
Ears perked. “Would you write up a memo?” asked Gilles. Selectman McCreary added, “let’s hear about it.” Gintner said she would provide the selectmen with such a memo. Apparently in relation to the $800,000 needed to bridge a gap for building a Park Street parking lot, Maxant joked, “we need to find $600,000 worth of waste.” Gintner said through refinancing town borrowing to lower rates, half of that sum may be soon achieved.
“We’re all ears,” said Gilles.