Plan may strip power from city treasurer
By James Peacemaker, Jr., Managing Editor
Feb 26, 2013, 17:05
photo by James Peacemaker, Jr. Colonial Heights Director of Finance William E. Johnson speaks Tuesday night. At left is Councilman W. Joe Green and City Attorney Hugh “Chip” P. Fisher III.
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — The city’s director of finance unveiled a plan Tuesday night that could take all local duties away from the city treasurer and shift them to his office.
During a special City Council meeting, Director of Finance William E. Johnson cited problems with the treasurer’s office, including an overlap of duties, refusal to cooperate with his office and other issues.
The treasurer is an elected constitutional officer and cannot be fired by the city. In addition to handling income tax for the state and court fees, the city gives her the responsibility of collecting money and making deposits. The finance department is a city agency that pays bills and handles other accounting responsibilities.
Johnson said auditors had difficulty reconciling accounting differences between the two offices and this could potentially create problems with credit rating agencies, leading to higher interest rates for the city.
City Manager Thomas L. Mathis backed the change, which would bring the responsibilities under his authority. He said there is no other way to resolve these issues.
“This is Management 101. Have one direct source … of accountability,” he said.
Johnson said the change would shift employees to his department but would not result in any job losses or salary changes. He said it could save the city money though because he would need more staff if duties stay the same.
Johnson said the change would leave the treasurer with only one part-time employee.
Treasurer Joy Moore said she was completely taken by surprise by the plan.
She said she tried to get software that was more compatible with the finance department, but she was refused funding.
Johnson also accused Moore of illegally collecting taxes five years after they were owed. He also said she should not have refused to accept payments for business licenses when back taxes are owed.
Moore later said these accusations show the director of finance’s lack of knowledge.
photo by James Peacemaker, Jr. Colonial Heights CIty Clerk Pamela E. Wallace and Mayor C. Scott Davis listen.
Moore said there are many reasons why taxes can be collected after five years. She said a judgement or bankruptcy would extend the timeline. She also said a local ordinance prevented her from issuing business licenses if back taxes were owed. She said she now accepts checks for the licenses but does not issue them when taxes are delinquent.
“He basically called me stupid and this was not what it was about,” she said.
She warned about the possibility of putting all financial dealings under one department. She said it would give one person too much control over the money and there would be no checks and balances.
Moore also questioned the constitutionality of the move and is considering a lawsuit to fight it. She said the treasurer’s role is spelled out in the City Charter, which cannot be changed without going through the General Assembly.
Moore also said there was a referendum in 2003 in which 66 percent of voters opposed a plan to shift duties away from the treasurer. She said in a written statement that this move is “in direct disregard for the will of the taxpayers.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, City Attorney Hugh “Chip” P. Fisher III said the move would be legal and would only require a change in city ordinances. Johnson said similar changes were made in the cities of Lynchburg and Franklin.
A letter from Kevin A. Appel, legal counsel for the Treasurer’s Association of Virginia, said based on a preliminary review that the actions would be illegal and is considering legal action.
City Council made no decision on the plan Tuesday night, saying they wanted to get more input from the public and employees. They also wanted to give Moore a chance to speak to them publicly about the plan.
photo by James Peacemaker, Jr. City Manager Thomas L. Mattis speaks as Councilman John T. Wood listens.
Council voted to hear more on the subject at its regular March 12 meeting.