Thursday, March 17, 2011

County Finances Conflict Shows State Take Over Rift

By Lisa E. Crowley
PLYMOUTH—One of the few things Plymouth County Commission Chairman Anthony O’Brien and Plymouth County Treasurer Thomas O’Brien can agree on, is that while they share the same last name, they are in no way related by their common Irish heritage and are as far away philosophically as they can be over whether Plymouth County should continue as a governmental body or be abolished. Commissioner Anthony “Tony” O’Brien, elected to the county commission in 2008, for the last several weeks has hit the radio airwaves and media with accusations that Treasurer Thomas O’Brien, appointed in 2006 and then elected in 2008, has refused to provide the board with financial information, such as monthly account reports, bank statements of accounts that pay salaries and operations, and revenue versus expense statements for county facilities such as courthouses in Brockton, Hingham and Wareham, and the Registry of Deeds.
He also wanted detailed account information about the county’s retirement and health insurance expenses and revenues.
“Are our bills in order?” asked Commissioner O’Brien, who is a former Navy Seal, who initially ran for his seat as a Democrat then about a year later switched to Republican.
“The issue is do I have enough money to pay those bills. I don’t know because he won’t give us the documentation we’ve asked for,” he said.
Until Tuesday night, March 15 when Commissioner O’Brien and his two fellow board members Sandra Wright and John “Jack” Riordan met for a regular meeting and received monthly and annual reports, Commissioner O’Brien intended to call for the shut down of Plymouth County—a symbolic move he said would illustrate that the county might be running more than the $620,000 known deficit and are paying bills they don’t have the money to pay for.
From the information he received prior to Tuesday night’s meeting, the county will be short $620,000 by the end of the fiscal year June 30, and personnel need to be notified if the county will stop functioning or not.
Since receiving updated statistics, Commissioner O’Brien has pulled back on the move.
“It was a threat to get Tom to play ball,” Commissioner O’Brien said.
Tuesday night, Commissioner O’Brien said he received some of the information he was looking for, but not all.
“It’s progress,” he said.
Treasurer Tom O’Brien, who spent 10 years in the State Legislature as a state representative, said before Tuesday night’s meeting and after the meeting that in essence Commissioner O’Brien is nuts, because he has provided the board with monthly and annual reports all along, and splayed a pile of statistics across his desk for reporters to see.
“I don’t know what he wants,” Treasurer O’Brien told three reporters. “You can see, there are monthly reports and annual reports…. I don’t know what he’s talking about” he said, ticking off numerous analytical reports. In some instances, Treasurer O’Brien said it is up to Commissioner O’Brien and his board to get financial information about the financial status of the health care group and retirement accounts for past and present employees, including the now state-run Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department.
Treasurer O’Brien said he doesn’t oversee the retirement board or health care funds.
“It’s not my job,” Treasurer O’Brien said. “He’s got it in his head he wants to shut down county government and that’s what he’s trying to do. That’s what this is about,” he said.
Treasurer O’Brien showed financial data that shows the county has a deficit of about $620,000, but, unless some unforeseen circumstance takes place between now and June 30, will have nearly $780,000 in projected remaining cash to cover the difference.
However, the picture isn’t that rosy.
During Tuesday night’s meeting Plymouth County Retirement Association Executive Director William Farmer and Mayflower Municipal Health Group Chairman Michael Levy gave updates of each of their situations.
Farmer was adamant that if county officials don’t resolve an on-going battle with the state over $18 million worth of Maintenance of Effort payments—a lynchpin in the county’s finances--he would be forced to send the county a bill for its share of retirement costs—a move he has held off making for months without receiving any money for payments to retirees.
Farmer said unless there is some resolution over the disputed payments, a not so pleasant letter for payment will be received by the county, possibly not long after today, when county officials are expected to meet with Senate President Therese Murray about the matter.
“Nobody is going to want to see that letter,” Farmer said.
Sandra Wright, one of the three members on the Plymouth County Commission who was elected in November, said Commissioner O’Brien’s public outcries have been helpful in gaining some of the financial information she said all board members want, not just Commissioner O’Brien.
“It’s improved,” Wright said.
On the other hand, Wright said, Commissioner O’Brien’s call for shutting down the county has not been so positive.
“It doesn’t help morale,” Wright said, meaning the county’s thousands of employees, who have been on a see-saw for at least the last two years as Plymouth County’s operations have been scrutinized for savings and efficiencies.
Currently a commission is meeting to decide if the county should be abolished or not and are expected to make a recommendation by the end of the year.
Commisioner O’Brien has been vocal and unequivocal about his belief the county should be abolished and the state should take it over—in part because much of the rents the state pays for use of county buildings are less than if the county sought private renters—which it can’t.
“We lose money to the state anyway,” O’Brien said. “They under pay us and they pay us late. We’re losing money every day,” he said.
He also said after the county passed operations of the Sheriff’s Department to the state as of Jan. 1, the county is only responsible for three courthouses and the Registry of Deeds in Brockton.
“What do we really do? We really only do two things—the courthouses and Registry,” Commissioner O’Brien said.
Treasurer O’Brien agrees the state does not pay a real rent or costs because on the back-end it takes away about 70 to 80 percent from any of the financial gains from the rents or state funding.
However, Treasurer O’Brien wholeheartedly disagrees with abolishing Plymouth County because it serves more roles than just overseeing three courthouses and the Registry of Deeds.
He said the entire country is moving toward regionalization for savings and efficiencies, moves that make Plymouth County a valuable asset to surrounding communities.
Treasurer O’Brien said the county has already regionalized some services, including processing parking ticket payments for 33 towns, including West Bridgewater, Whitman, Abington and Easton.
The county is also administering a grant that is expected to help Scituate install a wind turbine.
“This isn’t the time to abolish Plymouth County,” Treasurer O’Brien said.
During Tuesday night’s meeting State Rep. Tom Calter attended the meeting to show support and submit a letter of support from “the Plymouth County delegation at the State House” for Treasurer O’Brien against Commissioner O’Brien’s media attacks.
When he mentioned the media report, Commissioner O’Brien, the chairman, interrupted and hotly said he would not allow Calter to talk about the media report, saying he was misquoted, and demanded Calter stick to the topic on the agenda, which was the county’s financial matters,
Calter interjected he should be allowed professional courtesy to make his comments and after a brief exchange, Commissioner O’Brien allowed Calter to speak. He said numerous state representatives, led by Garrett Bradley signed a letter supporting O’Brien’s fight against the state take over.
Calter handed Commissioner O’Brien a manila folder he said included the state delegation letter and a copy of an email.
As Calter returned to his seat, Commissioner O’Brien thanked Calter for his comments and quipped he could now get back to the board’s official business because “I’m on an agenda,” to which Calter muttered as he sat down, “I’m certain you are on an agenda. It’s disgraceful.”
After the meeting Commissioner O’Brien said the folder only contained the email and no letter.
“He was grandstanding. That’s why I didn’t want to let him talk,” Commissioner O’Brien said.
Reached by telephone, Calter said there is “absolutely” a letter.
“First and foremost anyone who is charged with leading the county shouldn’t be attacking it. It’s incomprehensible to me that they would try to destroy the agency they were elected to. Commissioner O’Brien is not looking to change county government, he’s looking to end it,” Calter said. “Tom O’Brien has given (the commissioners) everything they’ve asked for,” Calter said.
Calter said if it wasn’t for Treasurer O’Brien standing up against the move, and in the process saving the county $18 million—disputed or not—no county official would have battled for the county at all.
“Tom O’Brien was the only one. Tom O’Brien was in the fight. Where were the commissioners? The commissioners were absent from the fight,” Calter said.
Admittedly, Calter said based on the way Plymouth County has been run in the past it should be abolished, but with the election and appointment of “hard-working and visionary” people like Treasurer O’Brien, the county could be a force for regionalization in the future.
As for the letter, Calter emailed a copy this morning.
Calter said Commissioner O'Brien's vitriol is out of line and he is attacking Treasurer O'Brien for things that are beyond his control.
"Tom O'Brien answers to the voters, not the board of commissioners," Calter said.
Commissioner O'Brien sees it differently.
"He's not doing his job and if I could fire him I would," Commissioner O'Brien said.

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