The state of the city trea­surer's of­fice

The Progress-Index Weekend - - OPINION - Ken Pritch­ett

The end of the year is a good time to re­view the state of the trea­surer’s of­fice and an­swer some of the ques­tions con­cern­ing the er­rors that have per­sisted since the es­tab­lish­ment of the billing and col­lec­tions of­fice.

The state of Vir­ginia and the city of Peters­burg has had an elected trea­surer as one of five con­sti­tu­tional of­fi­cers for more than 100 years. To­ward the end of the pre­vi­ous trea­surer’s term (as I was cam­paign­ing for the of­fice), there were four coun­cil­men who be­gan to pur­sue the elim­i­na­tion of most of the du­ties of the trea­surer’s of­fice. They spear­headed an or­di­nance to shift those du­ties to a city tax col­lec­tor. In July of 2017, City Coun­cil ap­pointed a col­lec­tor of city taxes, and it is the city man­ager, Aretha Fer­rell-Be­na­vides. Coun­cil charged the city man­ager with re­cruit­ing “suit­able and qual­i­fied in­di­vid­u­als” for the po­si­tion. A new po­si­tion of chief op­er­at­ing ofi­cer (COO) was cre­ated and Michael Rogers was ap­pointed to it. The di­rec­tor of billing and col­lec­tions re­ports to the COO. The city is now on its third billing and col­lec­tions di­rec­tor since the de­part­ment was formed.

I in­quired about the re­main­ing du­ties of the trea­surer’s of­fice, and in a Jan. 2, 2018, e-mail, the city man­ager re­sponded that she trusted that the trea­surer “will be able to op­er­ate the re­main­ing three func­tions of the of­fice ef­fec­tively and ef­fi­ciently.” These three func­tions were de­lin­eated as pay­ing state fees, mak­ing dis­burse­ments, and mak­ing de­posits. She made no men­tion of rec­on­cil­ing bank ac­counts.

Along with the for­ma­tion of billing and col­lec­tions of­fice, the trea­surer’s staff was cut from what had been nine peo­ple at one time to only three. You should be aware that the state com­pen­sa­tion board re­im­burses the city 100 per­cent of the trea­surer’s salary, and staff salaries are re­im­bursed by 50 per­cent. The lo­cal­ity can add ad­di­tional sup­ple­men­tal pay to the com­pen­sa­tion board’s salary, and in this case, it amounted to ap­prox­i­mately $18,000 in to­tal. Last year the city man­ager made some midyear bud­get cuts/ad­just­ments and cut all of the city sup­ple­men­tal in­come. The se­nior deputy trea­surer, with 29 years of ex­pe­ri­ence re­signed as a re­sult of this cut. This deputy was an in­valu­able as­set, and her loss cost the tax­pay­ers dearly in both money and time since the cuts.

To ab­sorb the re­as­signed trea­surer’s du­ties, the city has hired 11 ad­di­tional peo­ple in the billing and col­lec­tions of­fice. But none of these po­si­tions are funded in any part by the state, so the city has to pay the full salaries of these new em­ploy­ees as well as some ad­di­tional peo­ple in the fi­nance de­part­ment.

Some of the woes plagu­ing the pre­vi­ous trea­surer’s of­fice were due to be­ing un­der­staffed. This is ap­par­ent by the hir­ing of dou­ble the num­ber of new staff if you add to­gether the ad­di­tional po­si­tions in both the billing and col­lec­tions of­fice and the fi­nance de­part­ment.

De­spite these set­backs, the trea­surer’s of­fice is per­form­ing its re­main­ing du­ties. When billing and col­lec­tions for­wards us in­for­ma­tion at the close of each day, it is han­dled in a timely man­ner, and all checks re­ceived the day be­fore are de­posited in the bank. The trea­surer’s of­fice has been able to carry out these func­tions and more de­spite the great re­duc­tion in staff.

It is well known that city billing is in chaos. All of the is­sues tax­pay­ers have had with not get­ting util­ity bills, in­cor­rect bills, and late bill mail­ings were not the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the trea­surer’s of­fice, but the billing and col­lec­tions de­part­ment. The trea­surer has noth­ing to do with billing. Ev­ery day, tax­pay­ers come to the billing and col­lec­tions win­dow at city hall with ques­tions and prob­lems with their bills. This not only frus­trates the tax­pay­ers but also costs the city un­told amounts of money to cor­rect the nu­mer­ous and re­peated er­rors.

Ad­di­tion­ally, many have not re­ceived real es­tate per­sonal prop­erty tax bills at all, or they have ar­rived with penal­ties and in­ter­est that were not sup­posed to be charged. These bills did not come from the trea­surer’s of­fice as many have thought. Tax­pay­ers have also com­plained that their pay­ments are not be­ing posted in a timely man­ner to their var­i­ous ac­counts. Many pay­ments placed in the drop boxes at city hall were not posted or pro­cessed in a timely man­ner. These checks and money or­ders ac­cu­mu­lated in the safe of the billing and col­lec­tions of­fice for sev­eral months with­out be­ing ap­plied to the ac­counts be­cause staff had not been hired or trained to process them dur­ing heavy bill­pay­ing times. In this past July alone, the trea­surer’s of­fice pro­cessed more than 5,400 checks to­tal­ing sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars, some go­ing back as far as Feb­ru­ary 2018. The trea­surer can­not process your checks un­til billing and col­lec­tions posts your pay­ments to the proper ac­count.

There were also many er­rors in post­ing pay­ments to the lock­box in Bal­ti­more. One of my cam­paign rec­om­men­da­tions was to elim­i­nate the lock­box and have all pay­ments by check and money or­der sent to our post of­fice box in Peters­burg. The cur­rent tax col­lec­tor fi­nally did that in the sec­ond quar­ter of 2018–2019.

In­ter­nally, City Coun­cil and ad­min­is­tra­tion have blamed the trea­surer for not be­ing able to rec­on­cile the city bank ac­counts, chiefly the gen­eral fund ac­count, which is the largest and has the most daily ac­tiv­ity. As part of the pre­vi­ous du­ties of the trea­surer’s of­fice, the afore­men­tioned se­nior deputy trea­surer who re­signed spent most of her time rec­on­cil­ing bank ac­counts. Her de­par­ture left a void that staff in billing and col­lec­tions and fi­nance couldn’t fill.

In April 2018, the ad­min­is­tra­tion hired a tem­po­rary em­ployee to delve into how the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process had been done. After about two months and thou­sands of tax­payer dol­lars paid to the temp com­pany, a way for­ward seemed pos­si­ble. At about this time the fi­nance de­part­ment had a stroke of luck in find­ing a re­tired county of­fi­cial who knew our com­puter sys­tem and could be­gin to rec­on­cile our bank ac­counts. This per­son has al­most fin­ished the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process. Then, even though late, we will be able to com­plete the Com­pre­hen­sive An­nual Fi­nan­cial Re­port (CAFR). In the mean­time, I did hire a part-time em­ployee who is learn­ing the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process. Hope­fully, the former county of­fi­cial will be al­lowed to train this per­son. If so, I can see get­ting caught up with fis­cal 2019’s monthly rec­on­cil­i­a­tions and be in a po­si­tion to have the CAFR on time for fis­cal year 2019. There­fore, the trea­surer’s of­fice would of­fer to take back the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of the bank ac­counts even though this is out­side the scope of the three re­main­ing ar­eas of trea­surer’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as out­lined by the city man­ager.

Now City Coun­cil and ad­min­is­tra­tion want to take away most of the trea­surer’s

re­main­ing du­ties. They voted on Dec. 18 to re­quest that state Sen. Roslyn Dance and Del. Lashrecse Aird sub­mit a bill in the up­com­ing 2019 ses­sion of the Gen­eral As­sem­bly to fur­ther di­min­ish the trea­surer’s of­fice by mak­ing a change to the city char­ter. This will not only ham­string the trea­surer but will also elim­i­nate the checks and bal­ance sys­tem put in place to mak­ing sure that the tax­payer’s money is be­ing ac­counted for and

be­ing used for what its bud­geted pur­pose.

Now that we have dis­cussed the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the city trea­surer, lets us look at the du­ties of the city col­lec­tor. Ac­cord­ing to code, the col­lec­tor “shall col­lect all taxes and as­sess­ments which may be levied by the city.” In ad­di­tion the city col­lec­tor “shall make re­ports in writ­ing, un­der oath, to the city trea­surer weekly, or more of­ten, if re­quired, as to the amount of all monies col­lected and shall pay the same into the city trea­sury weekly.” At the end of each fis­cal year the col­lec­tor “shall sub­mit to the coun­cil a state­ment of all monies

col­lected by the col­lec­tor dur­ing the year, and the par­tic­u­lar as­sess­ments or ac­count upon which col­lected, [and] also a state­ment show­ing the amount un­col­lected.” I have re­ceived no re­port from ei­ther of the two tax col­lec­tors since tak­ing of­fice.

When I sought this of­fice, I fo­cused on sev­eral is­sues that tax­pay­ers re­peat­edly brought to my at­ten­tion. I will high­light four of my goals re­gard­ing these con­cerns:

• Seek in­put from ci­ti­zens on ways to im­prove the trea­surer’s op­er­a­tions;

• Up­grade cus­tomer ser­vice and staff train­ing;

• Elim­i­nate the

lock­box sys­tem (send­ing our tax money to Bal­ti­more); and

• Im­ple­ment pro­ce­dures for con­sis­tent, timely, and ac­cu­rate rev­enue col­lec­tions, in­clud­ing delin­quent taxes and wa­ter bills.

I would still like to be able to im­ple­ment these im­prove­ments but have been in­creas­ingly marginal­ized. The blame heaped on the trea­surer by city coun­cil, city ad­min­is­tra­tion, and so­cial me­dia is not jus­ti­fied. I have tried to co­op­er­ate and col­lab­o­rate with ev­ery­one, but my ef­forts have not been ac­cepted by the ad­min­is­tra­tion. In­stead they seek to fur­ther dis­man­tle the trea­surer’s of­fice, a con­sti­tu­tional of­fice,

that pro­vides checks and bal­ances to safe­guard our rev­enue. The city col­lec­tor, billing and col­lec­tions of­fice, and fi­nance de­part­ment have been in place for nearly a year and a half now. But the city’s billings and col­lec­tions are still in a state of dis­ar­ray. It ap­pears that these en­ti­ties would rather spend time and ef­fort gut­ting the trea­surer’s of­fice in­stead of im­ple­ment­ing so­lu­tions to fix the city’s fi­nan­cial ills. Maybe the tax­pay­ers/vot­ers should ree­val­u­ate all those who have a hand in mak­ing these de­ci­sions for us.

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