Debate rises after Trenton uncovers $20,000

Posted Dec. 07, 2010, at 9:38 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:54 a.m.

TRENTON, Maine — What do you do when you discover you have $20,000 you didn’t know you had?

Local municipal officials have found themselves in that exact situation after being informed that an account established decades ago may have as much as $20,000 in it. The account was established in the 1970s to collect and disburse funds for the town’s bicentennial celebration, which was held in 1989.

A bicentennial committee established when the account was opened is now defunct, town officials have said, with all but one member of the committee having since passed away.

The committee’s sole surviving member, former Town Clerk Janet Muise, recently brought the existence of the account to the attention of selectmen when she and her husband, former Fire Chief Kelton Muise, approached selectmen to discuss how the money in it should be spent.

Complicating the issue is the fact that Janet Muise, who retired in October after working for the town for nearly 40 years, is the only person approved by the bank to access the account. Another complicating factor is that local voters decided at a special town meeting in 1989 to transfer funds in the account to the town’s scholarship fund. That transfer, according to town officials, apparently never occurred.

The balance of the account in 1989 was about $11,500 but, with interest, it is believed to have increased to approximately $20,000 today, town officials said this week. Town officials agree that though Muise may be the only one who has access to the account, the money in it belongs to the town of Trenton.

Michael Hodgkins, chairman of Trenton’s Board of Selectmen, said Tuesday that the town’s attorney and auditor are working to establish the history of the account and to determine what sort of legal restrictions there may be on how the money is used. He said that the Muises have suggested using some of the money for a proposed local veterans memorial, but that town residents may be asked to vote again sometime on how the money should be spent.

The fact that Janet Muise is the only person approved by the bank to access the account has been a source of consternation for some town residents who believe the town’s bookkeeping has not been up to par. The new town clerk, Rachel Hyland, needs to be held to a higher standard for managing the town’s finances, critics have told town officials.

Two of the town’s selectmen, Susan Starr and Julee Swanson, have publicly criticized the way Muise has managed the town’s financial records.

Other residents have accused critics, including Starr and Swanson, of maligning Muise and of making it look like the former town clerk has purposefully mishandled the town’s money.

Kelton Muise, contacted Tuesday at his home, said neither he nor his wife wanted to comment on the issue.

Last week, selectmen met with the town’s accountant, James Wadman of Ellsworth, to discuss a recent audit Wadman conducted of the town’s finances through the end of last June. During the Nov. 30 public meeting, approximately 50 people packed themselves into the selectmen’s meeting room to hear what Wadman had to say.

Wadman said that though the town’s finances could have been kept in better order, he found no evidence that anyone has tried to hide or embezzle the town’s money. He recommended that, because the original purpose of the account has long since passed, the estimated $20,000 in the account should be transferred back into the town’s surplus.

Wadman also recommended conducting an interim audit of the town’s finances between July 1 and Oct. 29, which was Muise’s last day of work. He said such audits often are performed when a town bookkeeper retires just to ensure continuity between that employee and his or her replacement.

The Board of Selectmen voted 5-0 to accept Wadman’s recommendation to conduct an interim audit. They then voted unanimously to go into executive session with Dale Worthen, the town’s attorney, so he could give them legal advice on how to handle the situation.

What was discussed during the executive session has not been made public, but it is believed Worthen advised selectmen about what steps they might have to take in getting access to the account and what kind of public statements they can and cannot make about Muise’s management of the town’s financial records.

As for other selectmen, Carlene Hanscom declined Monday to comment on the situation and James Cameron could not be reached for comment. Julee Swanson referred questions to Susan Starr.

Starr said Monday evening that she could not comment about what was discussed during the executive session. But the selectman said she has “the utmost confidence” that the new town clerk will do a good job of managing the town’s financial records.

“I do believe we need to make a lot of changes and that we are on the right track,” Starr said.

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