Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Take a deep breath

Controlling the purse strings

Brenda Grubbs resigned as Goochland County Treasurer just before 5 p.m. on Friday, February 11 as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli began to prepare ouster proceedings against her.

The sordid details of this bizarre episode in county history will dribble out over the next few months as the county cleans up the mess and moves on with the people’s business.

Some citizens reportedly gave the supervisors an earful at a budget workshop meeting last night and called for them all to resign.

Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater it’s important to note that three board members, Andrew Pryor, District 1, Board Chair William Quarles, District 2 and James Eads, District 5 voted together to prevent rotation of the chairmanship in January. This put the group that some have dubbed as “the three blind mice” in the driver’s seat. Because the chairman controls the agenda of public meetings he can prevent comment from fellow board members and the public.

It’s good to see citizens expressing their outrage at the way county business is conducted. Where were they at the 2007 elections?

There are many matters that need further explanation to the citizens. For example, the 2009 Comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR) painted an alarming picture of long standing fiscal dysfunction. The TBM accepted the report, began to fix some of the problems and moved on.

Many of the problems seem to have been the result of inattention by the previous auditing firm. Goochland County spent huge sums of tax dollars to conduct the CAFR, yet has done nothing to investigate what legal remedies it might have against the former auditors to at least cover the cost of the extensive 2009 CAFR.

Recent events concerning the County Treasurer have put the issue of who should be in charge of county funds into sharp focus.

Currently, Goochland operates under a system that elects both a treasurer and Commissioner of the Revenue. These positions are constitutional officers and operate under state control.

According to remarks made by Goochland County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson on February 9, the office of treasurer was created as a Constitutional Officer by the state so that the person responsible for a county’s money is elected by and responsible to the citizens, not the supervisors or county officials.

Both are physically located in the county administration building and work closely with the county to manage Goochland’s money and serve its citizens.

The treasurer computes, prepares and mails tax bills and collects all payments due the county. The Treasurer is also charged with investing county funds.

The commissioner of the revenue handles assessments of personal property taxes for businesses and individuals. This function also handles business licenses, consumer utility and machinery and tool taxes.

The Commissioner of the revenue also helps citizens prepare their state tax returns and processes those returns electronically to expedite refunds. Tax relief for the elderly and disabled is also administered by the commissioner of the revenue.

The two offices function as part of a three-legged stool of county finances.

Some people, including a few supervisors, have been advocating that Goochland change its form of local government to a county manager format. This would eliminate the offices of treasurer and commissioner of the revenue. Functions performed by those two departments would be consolidated under a county director of finance, reporting to the county manager, who reports to the board of supervisors.

Proponents of this form of government contend that it would streamline operations and save the cost of the two constitutional officers. The employees who work in both departments would still be needed so the job loss would be minimal.

On the other hand, a lot of Goochlanders feel very strongly that the way we’ve been handling our money works just fine. They believe that, at least in part, the good and caring service dispensed by the treasurer and commissioner of the revenue is due to the fact that they must run for office every four years.

A county finance department, they believe, operated by government employees with little incentive to go the extra mile is a step in the wrong direction.

Then, there’s the checks and balances matter. Right now everyone is shaking their heads in sad disbelief about the reported revelations that Grubbs embezzled large amounts of county money and sent it out of the country for reasons yet to be revealed.

Many people seem to have forgotten that Grubbs was a lone, early voice questioning about missing checks and deposits in Utility Department mess a few years ago.

What would have happened had Goochland’s money been managed by someone who reported to the head of county administration? Would the high weird there ever come to light if all money matters were handled by one office?

Do we really want to streamline oversight out of our system? Or, would it be better to ensure that competent people are elected to the office of treasurer?

Remember, Grubbs ran unopposed in 2007 even though some supervisors even then were grumbling about her performance almost from the day she took office in 2004. Had there been more transparency on all levels of local government someone else might have run for the office.

This is an important issue, one that everyone should stop and think about.

The good news is that the form of county government cannot be changed without public hearings and citizen approval via referendum.

Important changes should not be made in the heat of a crisis, but only after careful thought and deliberation.

This is what happens when voters don’t pay attention. In past years, Goochland has been recognized for its high voter turnout — in presidential elections.

Far fewer voters bother to exercise their franchise during local elections, which will be held this November. It would be interesting to take random polls of county residents to see if they are able to name their supervisor or school board representative.

Citizens tend to get the kind of government they deserve. It’s time to pay attention and think hard about what is and has been going on.


Anonymous said...

There are pros and cons of having an elected treasurer and commissioner of revenue. One of the largest negatives in such a system is that it creates inefficiencies in staffing. Anyone who questions this is either ignorant or disingenuous.

Whether adequate checks and balances would exist under an alternative system would greatly depend upon the rigor and independence of auditors involved. Under the current system, two sets of auditors are charged with looking at controls in the Treasurer's office.

Clearly the current outside auditor identified problems. What about the state auditors? And what exactly should be the procedure in place to notify citizens about identified problems in constitutional offices? They are questions that have not yet been answered.

D.M. Kinney said...

You gave a nice, well-balanced view of the issue about changing government.


A few points-


1.       The current system has worked well for 150 years, this incident not withstanding

2.       It is an easy fix to prevent treasurers from doing such mischief

3.       Only two out of 95 counties have a county manager and that is only because they are, in effect, cities

4.       Henrico went to this system in about 1930

5.       93 counties function just fine with service beholden to the electorate

6.       A referendum is hardly all that is required to change government type

7.       Why change our entire form of local government over a minor issue, if it weren’t political mischief and empire-building

8.       Since Ms. Dickson was pointing out the lack of office qualification as a short-coming, how about her own office or many others or the BOS representatives

9.       If I elect my BOS representative to watch over county employees, who do I ask to watch over my representative


I’ve been distressed that our president wants to mess with our form of government and modify it to nefarious ends – now I have to worry at the local level, as well. The guy last night who said “toss ‘em all out” may just be prescient.


Let’s get a couple of good, qualified treasurer candidates and let the voters decide.