By Scott Sullivan
An April 30 letter from outgoing Saugatuck Township supervisor Chris Roerig to clerk Abby Bigford identifies issues, in particular treasurer Jon Helmrich’s handling of that office, he believes need addressing going forward.
Among claims Roerig documents, many of which the treasurer disputes, are Helmrich misplaced $30,000 in revenue checks, bought wine on the township credit card, was delinquent hiring a de-puty and borrowed the $100 office petty cash balance and has not replenished it.
Roerig, who announced April 23 he was leaving five days after three-month manager/zoning administrator Natalie Dean turned in her resignation, said he believed the direction the board was taking was not in residents’ best interests.
“I have spoken with the township manager,” Roerig’s letter said, “and we both feel that the treasurer’s inability to function in his job could very likely lead the township into legal trouble. Neither of us want, or deserve to be involved with that and this led to our resignations.” Both took effect May 3.
Helmrich, who said he received a copy of Roerig’s email through Bigford Friday upon returning from Michigan Municipal Treasurers Association (MMTA) institute training April 29 through May 3 in Mt. Pleasant, said he found this claim “questionable and odd.
“Mr. Roerig and Ms. Dean resigned for reasons they have stated elsewhere having nothing to do with treasurer’s office,” said Helm- rich. “Both of their resignation statements explained their decisions and now they have left, they have found new reasons which seems highly suspect. They are gone and not liable if I fail to perform my job properly.”
With the supervisor gone and his job now posted (see related story in this week’s Commercial Record), board members remaining are all new since a Nov. 6 recall election ousted four incumbents. Roerig, appointed supervisor by the past board in April 2018 after predecessor Jon Phillips moved out of the township, ran unopposed last fall.
He brought institutional knowledge to the board in that post, having served as a township trustee from 2000 to 2012 and prior to that on the parks commission.
Bigford, Helmrich, plus trustees Stacey Aldrich and Brenda Marcy bring their own professional experiences knowledge as residents to the board, but are new to and learning their municipal offices and procedures.
Helmrich told the remaining board by speakerphone at its May 1 meeting who was finding the MMTA valuable and informative.
“I appreciate,” Roerig wrote Bigford April 30, copying in township auditor Dan Veldhuizen, “and respect the working relationship we have had since your election. My comments do not reflect a personal issue with Treasurer Helmrich but a professional issue.
“Please share these issues with the board and I will share them with our constituents,” Roerig said.
The treasurer, he wrote, “is responsible for receipt of taxes and the safe investment of those funds. Historically, in our township, this position also serves as an administrator for the office, including answering phones, assisting in building department activities, answering questions for our residents, assisting in cemetery activities, and many other important tasks that the office team provides. That is why there is such a substantial administrative salary and benefit package for this fulltime position.
“The statutory duties of this office are very specific,” he continued. “From the time our new township treasurer was elected, a number of areas of concern have been consistently raised by our staff and I believe they need to be addressed. These include:
“Township bank statements have not been reconciled since December,” said Roerig’s letter. “Our auditor requests that these be reconciled monthly, to the penny. Without this information it will be impossible to audit the township books.
“It has also made it very difficult for the township manager to accurately project the fiscal year 2019 revenues for the budget without this information.”
“I have explained this in great detail and kept the board up to speed on this,” Helmrich responded. “In fact, on April 5 Mr. Roerig wrote to me and I gave him the facts:
“General ledger account was reconciled through March and the tax account through January. Subsequent months were nearly completed, but there remained some specific items that required research to outside parties and staff. You cannot reconcile a month completely unless the previous month has been finalized.
“Manager Dean was kept up to date on this, as well, and knew what issues needed to be resolved. In his email responding, he (Roerig) wrote, ‘Great! I take that as a yes and look forward to seeing that information next week. Thanks for the prompt reply and confirmation,’” Helmrich said.
“In addition,” Roerig wrote Bigford, “there is currently $221,874.26 of taxpayer dollars in the tax account. This should have been disbursed a while ago and a balance of this size in this account is not the norm.
“There are several other payouts that have not been made, and you should check Interurban, Trailer Tax, Library, PILT and other accounts to make sure they have been handled properly.”
“I have noted this balance,” Helmrich responded, “in the tax account several times to the full board, manager and deputy clerk. It requires research as to the reason, which was also discussed at the MMTA where the consensus was to work with the auditor who has background information. Sometimes, this is caused by rollovers from previous years.
“I reported to the full board (including Mr. Roerig) at the April board meeting, that I settled our taxes billed, received and disbursed with the County Treasurer by the deadline and we matched to the penny,” Helmrich continued. “I have the treasurer’s notarized acknowledgment of this.
“I have discussed the bank account balance with the deputy clerk on how best to resolve. Our manager asked me to not discuss things with the deputy clerk and to rely on the Saugatuck treasurer or our database/software provider (that handles all tracking for most townships and cities in Michigan).
“I told our auditor two weeks ago that I wanted to meet with him once the MMTA meetings were finished. According to the database provider (BS&A) all disbursements were made as required,” Helmrich said.
Petty Cash/Credit Card
“The treasurer,” Roerig wrote Bigford, “borrowed the entire $100 cash balance from petty cash during the last tax season for personal use and it has not been replenished, nor accounted for with receipts, nor repaid if used for personal purposes. This is illegal.”
“This item,” Helrmich responded, “is defamatory and suggests improper actions. In my time as treasurer we have never had $100 in petty cash. It has not been replenished this year as I have been attempting to find out how it has been tracked and used in the past.
“I remember one time the office used some cash to buy batteries. On one occasion, I used my own cash to give change to a taxpayer who paid taxes in cash and there was not enough in petty cash. This was less than $10 and I put a note in the box that I had done this and should be reimbursed.”
“Likewise,” Roerig told Bigford, “the township credit card cannot be used for anything but township business.”
“The township credit card statements,” said Helmrich, “are all itemized and coded by the deputy clerk, shared with the board and kept on file. No one has used the card for anything but township business pure and simple. I question where Mr. Roerig received such information and to what he is referring.”
The former supervisor told The Commercial Record staff could back him up.
An April 10 email from Dean to Helmich and Bigford, included in Roerig’s email as documentation, apprises them, “I know you probably didn’t know this, but you cannot charge alcohol to the township credit card. That is a huge problem, especially if the credit card statements are ever FOIA’d (requested via Michigan Freedom of Information Act).
“It is the taxpayers that pay for all of our expenses,” Dean continued, “and while training and some travel expenses are expected, alcohol is not. Always charge alcohol or other non-essentials to your own credit card.
“Whomever had the wine will have to pay Lori (deputy clerk Babinski) back $12 and she can make a note and add it to the statement in the event it ever gets a FOIA request,” Dean said.
“Personally,” Helmrich replied to Dean April 10 by email, “I think the township should be able to have a party or two within reason. We can always the MTA (Michigan Townships Association) for samples of other townships’ policies.”
Auditor Veldhuizen of Siegfried Crandall PC that day advised Dean, “If we had selected the transaction for testing, we would have asked for any policy that addresses meal charges or reimbursements, as it does seem inappropriate.
“Most municipalities don’t allow alcohol purchases, though some do. Federal agencies don’t allow for the purchase of alcohol to be charged to their programs. It all depends on the township policy.”
Lost Revenue Checks
“Over $30,000 in revenue checks,“ Roerig’s April 30 email to the clerk continued,” received from KLSWA (Kalamazoo Lake Sewer & Water Authority) were misplaced and had to be canceled, only to have the treasurer find them later,”
His letter included documentation from both KLSWA manager Daryl VanDyke and Helmrich about that incident.
Helmrich conceded as much in a Feb. 28 email and apologized, KLSWA reissued the checks it had first sent Feb. 1 and the old were voided.
“This is terrible practice,” Roerig wrote Bigford last week, “and should never happen. I have asked the deputy clerk to investigate ACH and other methods to insure better handling of revenue checks.”
“Yes,” Helmrich responded to Roerig’s April 30 letter, “two checks from KLWSA were handed to me by the deputy clerk. I put them in a tax follow-up file. I discovered them after new checks were submitted and contacted KLWSA immediately to apologize and ask if they wanted the originals returned or shredded. This all happened in a matter of days; they were not lost.”
“I have heard many complaints,“ Roerig wrote Bigford, “from residents who did not receive a tax receipt, especially those attending Board of Review hearings. The cost of sending these is minimal and our residents have always received them in the past.”
“The assessor (recently retired Sherry Mason) and I worked very closely together on a daily basis,” Helmrich responded. “She never once mentioned anyone at a Board of Review hearing mentioning a request for a tax receipt. The supervisor is required to attend those meetings (held in December and March) and never said anything.
“All taxpayers are offered a receipt and receive one on the spot if they choose; some do not want one and rely on their cancelled checks,” Helmrich continued. “Those paying by mail often include a note requesting one to be mailed or emailed and all those requests were made in a timely fashion. Without knowing for which tax period or taxpayer he is referring, I cannot reply in more detail.
“Receipts take a matter of seconds to print. And no, in the past receipts were not sent to those who paid by mail or credit card automatically … only if requested,” the treasurer said.
“• State law,” Roerig wrote Bigford, “requires that all township treasurers immediately appoint a deputy. The treasurer waited for months to do so, and this is a dereliction of duty that could have created a difficult situation for the township.”
Helmrich apologized for the delay to the township board April 3, meeting minutes reflect, saying he did not want to appoint a deputy in the midst of the tax season while he was learning so much. He added he wanted to be in a better position to train a deputy.
The treasurer, who appointed trustee Brenda Marcy to that position, proposed the deputy’s pay be raised from the township’s $14 per hour to $18 per hour. Remaining board members said April 3 the proposal should be part of budget discussions next month.
“To delay this appointment on the basis of wanting to know how much that deputy could be paid is not a valid reason,” said Roerig’s letter, “and the appointment of an elected official to this position stretches the bound of incompatible offices, which is why this required a board vote on this. (Otherwise the treasurer would have autonomy to do so.) Be cognizant that compensation above that which is allowed by statute is illegal.”
“Deputies,” Helmrich responded, “are compensated if they are asked to work and there was a discrepancy in the current budget where an addendum listed the pay amount for deputy treasurer, but it was not a line item in the actual budget.
“When I brought this up, Mr. Roerig said I should use the training budget to pay a deputy which didn’t seem appropriate or consistent with the addendum which listed all payments and per diems for staff, board, commission members, etc. Mr. Roerig voted to approve my deputy appointment,” Helmrich said.
“In summary,” Roerig said, “the township treasurer has not been honest with staff, the board and the public regarding the ability to execute the responsibilities of this office. When mistakes were made, he did not bring them to the attention of the clerk, manager or supervisor.
“The issues I have raised are well documented. I hope with the upcoming training (the state treasurers institute sessions, now completed) that the treasurer has finally agreed to undertake, with additional BS&A software training and other support, that the township can correct these deficiencies in office.”
“Again not accurate,” Helmrich responded, “and I take personal offense at his charges of untruthfulness. I spoke regularly with the manager and staff when I had questions or realized a mistake had been made. It would have been difficult to discuss any issues with Supervisor Roerig, as he stopped talking to me on his infrequent visits to the office several months ago.
“When I reached out to him to suggest a regular meeting between us, he refused my offer so I stopped asking. He never met once with me to discuss my role or to ask how things were going.
“I relied on speaking with the manager and staff on day-to-day items. Not sure what he means by, ‘finally agreed to undertake.’ I registered for the first available BS&A training offered (they are quarterly) that did not conflict with other township obligations.”
“I want to remind you,” Roerig wrote Bigford, “that it is the township clerk that should serve as a check and balance for the rreasurer, and I have full faith and confidence that you, with your Deputy’s assistance, will do so. Please know that it is your deputy that has the institutional knowledge of township treasury that will provide this check on the department.”
“I agree completely with this,” replied Helmrich. “and it was enforced at the MMTA last week: clerks and treasurers must work together on many things such as bank reconciliations and approving actions that each must take on the township’s behalf. Again, this is difficult when the Manager takes steps to minimize such interaction.
“I should also remind Mr. Roerig that I discovered certain practices in place when I began my term that were not being followed properly according to training that both our new board clerk and I attended with the (newly joined) Michigan Townships Association in December. We have implemented some of these and have more to do both to honor ‘separations of duties’ and ‘checks and balances.’
“This works both ways,” Helmrich said.