The state of the city treasurer's office
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.