Sheffield Town Hall has a silent alarm that workers inside can push to alert authorities to trouble in the building. Panic buttons are just one measure
Sheffield Town Hall has a silent alarm that workers inside can push to alert authorities to trouble in the building. Panic buttons are just one measure that Berkshire communities use to help keep governments safe. (Scott Stafford / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

SHEFFIELD -- If an emergency occurs at Sheffield's Town Hall, employees can push a remote-control panic button. Within minutes, local police will arrive.

Municipal workers in Sheffield have never had to activate that silent alarm, but just knowing that button is available gives them peace of mind, Town Administrator Rhonda LaBombard said.

"Especially upstairs, where my office is isolated from everyone else," LaBombard said. "It gives the employees a sense of security."

Panic buttons are among the measures that Berkshire County communities have to help keep their local governments safe. The county's 32 municipalities are trying to protect hundreds of employees and tens of millions of dollars' worth of municipal buildings, infrastructures and finances.

While pressing the panic button is a rarity, there are a number of issues that local officials face, such as natural disasters. Also, they acknowledge that theft -- both internal and external -- is a possibility.

It's a concern the Massachusetts Municipal Association helps its 351 member cities and towns deal with through services and seminars.

"Fortunately, it's rare that someone steals from within because the people are usually caught," said MMA Executive Director George Beckwith. "When the theft is discovered, it's newsworthy."

Three years ago, former West Stockbridge Town Clerk Tina S. Cooper made headlines by admitting in court that she embezzled $7,120 from town accounts in fiscal 2010. Cooper later repaid the funds, received an 18-month suspended jail sentence, and was placed on probation for three years.

West Stockbridge Administrative Assistant Mark Webber said the town instituted a system of routine audits nearly 20 years ago. Such an audit led to the discovery of Cooper's misappropriation of funds.

"You may get away with [the theft] for a little while, but not for long," Webber said.

Now that a large majority of municipal monetary transactions occur electronically, cities and towns rely on backup systems to protect their computer files.

In North Adams, passwords, firewalls and fingerprint identifications limit the number of people who can access the city's budget accounts and sensitive municipal documents.

"There are layers and layers of authentication," said Kathleen Wall, who manages the city's information systems.

Having fewer people handle the city's $36 million budget on a daily basis is better than lots of officials, Mayor Richard J. Alcombright said.

"There's no way I could post a payment or transfer money from one account to another," said Alcombright, who isn't authorized to perform those duties.

Dedicated and well-trained municipal employees also are crucial to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent as intended, according to LaBombard.

"We have a treasurer [Michael Ovitt] who does a great job making sure every penny is accounted for," she said.

While city and town halls still conduct some cash transactions with the public, the money collected usually is deposited on a daily basis, local officials said.

Those trying to break into town hall, or hack into its computers to access taxpayer dollars, are wasting their time, Webber said.

"All essential information is stored off site," he said. "There really is nothing of value here."

North Adams Chief Administrative Officer Michael Canales said it doesn't make sense to try to take local government data.

"About 90 percent of the information here [at City Hall] is public record," Canales said. "You don't need to steal what you can ask for."

Those types of theft are even harder at municipalities such as West Stockbridge or Lenox, where the police departments are located inside of town hall.

"It's very convenient to have the police in the same building," Webber said. "It wouldn't make sense to try and commit a crime here."

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.