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End of an Era as Devitt Retires from Dual Role

Jan 30, 2015 07:00AM ● By Kenneth Hamwey
written by KEN HAMWEY, Bulletin Staff Writer

January 7 marked the end of an era at the Municipal Center when Grace Devitt (pictured above) retired as Bellingham’s Tax Collector and Treasurer.

The 68-year-old Devitt (pictured right), a native of Framingham who has lived in Bellingham for 43 years, was elected as Tax Collector in 1992 and a year later won election as the town’s Treasurer. In 1993, the town adopted a charter, which made both functions appointed positions. The personable Devitt has served in both roles for 20-plus years.

“I never considered either role a job, and I truly enjoyed dealing with the citizens of Bellingham,” said Devitt, who is certified as a Massachusetts Municipal Collector and Treasurer. “I’m glad I could assist people with whatever issues were on their mind.”

Both of Devitt’s positions involve lots of detail and knowledge of a plethora of state regulations. Those are two reasons she’s glad her roles were removed from the electoral process and became appointed posts. “In towns that still vote for a tax collector and a treasurer, you hope the winners aren’t chosen because of a popularity contest or because the voters were simply eager to make a change for the sake of change,” Devitt said.

The duties of a Tax Collector basically involve processing payments and crediting residential accounts. Once checks are deposited, the funds then become part of Bellingham’s general fund. In her role as Treasurer, Devitt’s department took municipal and school receipts (sports user fees, for example) and deposited them with credits to specific accounts before the finance department paid bills associated with those accounts.

 “There are times when the Tax Collection Department has to explain to taxpayers the specifics of their bill,” said Devitt, who previously worked as a real estate broker. “A good example is the capital improvement charge on water bills. The increase went from $26 to $210 annually,” Devitt noted. “We got a lot of questions on that change. We also at times have to direct residents to the assessors’ office because an auto excise bill or real estate tax bill may need to be abated.”

Both the methods and the personnel at the Tax Collector and Treasurer’s offices have changed moderately since Devitt’s arrival in 1992. On-line banking has come into play, more technology is involved, staff has decreased and the frequency of mailing out bills has increased.
 “When I started, all bills were printed at the Municipal Center,” Devitt noted. “Now they’re printed by outside vendors. Real estate tax bills and water and trash bills previously were sent out on a semi-annual basis; now they go out quarterly. The workload in that respect has doubled, but the staff has gone from eight people when I started to four currently. On-line banking creates some time-consuming efforts. Some checks don’t indicate what they’re for. Technology is more advanced, but at times glitches do occur. Computers are only as good as the information they receive.”

During Devitt’s tenure, she reported to the Chief Financial Officer. First it was Marilyn Mathieu and now it’s Chris Laviolette. “Marilyn was fabulous,” Devitt said. “I learned more about the two positions from her, and we worked well together. I knew Chris when he was an auditor. He’s a diligent, intelligent and capable CFO.”

Devitt’s successor will be appointed by Town Administrator Denis Fraine and voted on by the Selectmen. That appointment hasn’t occurred yet, but Devitt has some solid advice for whoever is chosen. “You should always listen,” she said. “Make sure you listen to the residents and your staff. Also, be objective. Always be able to see the other side of an issue.”

Devitt, who is widowed, has one son (Michael Sabourin) and three grandchildren. Her future plans aren’t etched in stone, but she’ll definitely be spending time with her family and possibly return to Bryant University, where she needs only five courses to get her bachelor’s in finance. Devitt has an associate’s degree from Dean College.

Devitt lists “meeting lots of nice people and being associated with efficient and dedicated co-workers” as the most enjoyable part of her municipal career. The most difficult part was trying to fix any snags in bills that caused residents anguish or anxiety.

“I remember an elderly woman whose house was going to be foreclosed because of non-payment of her tax bill,” Devitt recalled. “Her bill had tripled and she was too proud to tell her family. Before foreclosure proceedings were to start, I spoke up and said her bill should be corrected because a computer error had caused the massive increase. We got everything straightened out by going through the proper channels.”

That’s the kind of asset Devitt has been as Tax Collector and Treasurer. She’s efficient, but she’s also a people person. Grace Devitt no doubt will be missed, and her departure is truly the end of an era in Bellingham.
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