Council keeps treasurer duties
By James Peacemaker, Jr., Managing Editor
Mar 13, 2013, 13:22
photo by James Peacemaker, Jr. Colonial Heights Treasurer Joy Moore talks with supporters during an intermission during the City Council meeting Tuesday night.
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — Three weeks ago, the city’s finance director presented a plan to strip all local duties away from the city treasurer and put them under his authority.
On Tuesday night, the treasurer got a chance to make her case -- and she brought backup.
The City Council chambers were packed with supporters of Treasurer Joy Moore wearing fluorescent green and yellow stickers saying “I [heart] my treasurer” and “Bureaucrats” with a slash through it. More people gathered outside to listen over the loudspeaker.
At the end of a marathon council meeting that lasted more than four hours, City Council reached a stalemate 3-3 vote that preserved her duties. Applause could be heard outside after the decision.
Several council members said they voted against the change in part because they could not just disregard the voters’ decision to keep the treasurer. A 2003 referendum to eliminate the position failed by a wide margin. At Tuesday’s meeting, 15 people spoke on the topic and all of them backed keeping the treasurer’s duties. Moore also presented a petition with more than 270 signatures of people who supported her.
During a special City Council meeting Feb. 19, 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, and potentially costing the city between $700,000 and $1 million.
Speaking to council Tuesday night, Moore went through the list of accusations, offering a rebuttal to what she called an attempt at a “hostile takeover.”
Among Johnson’s criticisms were that Moore did not investigate miscategorized collections, refused to accept online payments, would not change misposted payments to accounts, refused to sign an audit document, and illegally accepted payments after the five-year statute of limitations.
Moore went through the list in an effort to challenge each claim.
Moore said that she did not spend a lot of time investigating miscategorized collections because she was taught that there will always be unexplained discrepancies and that the focus should be on collecting the money.
Moore said she never refused to accept online payments, but just wanted them in an Excel format. She also said she was never informed of a decision to change the vendor for online payments.
Moore said the one instance she could remember of someone claiming a misposting was a woman who wanted her money refunded from two years before so that she could pay a dentist bill. Moore said no other treasurer she talked to would have given the money back either.
Moore said she refused to sign the audit document because it said there was no knowledge of fraud. She said there had been instances of someone trying to cash counterfeit checks that were still being investigated by state police. She wanted the auditors to clarify the statement before she signed it.
Regarding the statute of limitations on collecting property tax, she said there were many reasons the deadline would be extended, such as court judgements, bankruptcies, payment plans or open estates after someone has died.
“I’m not in the business of sending money back,” Moore said.
During the meeting, City Manager Thomas L. Mathis also said that Moore had the policy of never answering phones.
Moore was taken aback and questioned where he got that idea. She said phones are always answered unless staff are busy helping customers at the time.
“I have never heard of something so absurd in my life,” she said.
Moore also 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 said she had a good property tax collection rate of 98 to 99 percent. She said she was the city’s first treasurer to get a master certification, and that under her watch the treasurer’s office was certified for the first time.
Citizens speaking at the meeting voiced concerns about being ignored and their votes not counting. Others warned council members that their votes that night would affect the votes they received when it came time for re-election.
But two speakers who stood out were those who had been in similar circumstances as Moore.
Fred Anderson, a retired treasurer from Roanoke County, said his office was abolished in 1975 along with the commissioner of revenue in order to increase efficiency.
“Before the following year was even out, the bureaucracy grew faster than the population and the taxes increased faster than the inflation,” he said.
By 1977, he said there was a referendum to bring the offices back and it was approved by a landslide.
Franklin’s treasurer, Dinah Babb, said she assumed her duties in 2005, the same day council voted to eliminate her local duties. She said citizens didn’t even know what happened and she would have loved to get the support that Moore has received.
She said tax collection rates dropped from 97.6 percent to 94.4 in five years while the finance director had the duties. She said that when she resumed the role, collection rates climbed back up to 99 percent.
Mathis tried to reassure council that he could maintain a high tax collection rate. He said in his decades of service, he has never had less than a 97 percent collection rate.
When it came time for Colonial Heights City Council members to vote Tuesday night, several council members seemed torn between doing what seems right fiscally and what seems right philosophically.
Councilman John Wood said he sees the need for efficiency but is opposed to putting more layers between the decision makers and the voters.
Mayor C. Scott Davis agreed, saying he didn’t want to ignore a decision by voters but he said he couldn’t ignore what the auditors said and the risk to the city’s finances.
In the end, Wood, Davis and Diane Yates voted for the measure to shift the treasurer’s responsibilities to the director of finance. Milton E Freeland Jr., T. Gregory Kochuba and W. Joe Green Jr. opposed the measure. Kenneth B. Frenier didn’t participate in the vote because his wife works for the treasurer’s office. With a 3-3 tie vote, the measure died.
After the decision, Moore and Johnson both said they hoped to move past the fight.
Moore said she is focused on doing what is right for Colonial Heights and is open to changes such as new software if City Council is willing to pay for it and training.
Johnson said he was putting forth just one possible solution to resolve the issues and he hoped there would not be a setback in cooperation between the two offices.