By Michael Howell
A third employee at the Ravalli County Treasurer’s Office has resigned. All three have stated publicly that they were greatly frustrated by Treasurer Valerie Stamey’s lack of competence and inability to perform her duties. Following the resignations of Linda Isaacs and JoAnne Johnson, the recent resignation of Mary Borden highlights problems at the county’s tax office since the appointment of Stamey to the Treasurer’s position.
Both Isaacs and Johnson claimed that they were being pressured to do the Treasurer’s job prior to their resignations. On November 12, one week prior to Johnson’s resignation on November 20, Borden e-mailed Ravalli County Chief Financial Officer Klarysse Murphy, stating, “Can you suggest a way for us to communicate the continued lack of competency in our office during or prior to the commissioner’s ‘treasurer’s update’ meeting tomorrow? A-101s [receipts], even after she has ‘fixed’ them, are not correct, JoAnne is spending all morning today going back to fix the ones she dumped over several days in October, she is still using Marie’s name and even mine on the ones she does get finished. Her daily balancing is laughable, and of course, there is no effort to learn how to do the treasurer’s balance.”
These e-mails and many more going into and out of the County Treasurer’s Office were made available following a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Bitterroot Star. They paint a picture of systematic failures on the part of the treasurer’s office since Stamey took the helm in September.
In mid October, Stamey received an e-mail from CFO Murphy, asking her to get in touch with District Court Clerk Paige Trautwein about money being posted to a fund that doesn’t exist as a revenue account. Stamey e-mailed back saying it was one of the things on her ‘to do’ list.
The next day Trautwein e-mails Stamey, saying that she has already sent all the required information about the proper account number, and the cash/project number and wonders why the delay.
“I am assuming that since my funds have not been deposited into the correct fund, you haven’t sent out my August and September Disbursements either. I would like to remind you that the State of Montana expects those by the 8th of each month,” wrote Trautwein. “I understand that you have a learning curve, and I am trying to be patient. But there is never an excuse for lack of Financial Integrity. You are now affecting my integrity and my Elected Position by not carrying out your duties correctly.”
Problems continued and by the end of October, Trautwien had contacted Commission Chair Jeff Burrows, stating, “At some point you are going to have to come up with a solution so that other County Elected Officials can run their offices the way the public elected them to do… The State of Montana really doesn’t care that you hired someone with a ‘huge learning curve’. And what I care about is getting monies that Ravalli County owes them for Disbursements each month. And what I care about is running my office with efficiency and integrity as I promised the citizens of Ravalli County that I would do.” Trautwein’s problems about deposits and disbursements lingered, but by late November had mostly been smoothed out. Last Friday she said that things were proceeding on pace with the treasurer’s office.
But problems in other departments sprouted.
On October 24, Stamey received an e-mail from Julie Mazza, Assistant Vice President and Personal Banking Officer at First Interstate Bank, informing her that the County has a contractual obligation to keep at a minimum $3,000,000 in the REPO investment account at all times.
“We have noticed that since October 16, 2013 the balance in this account has fallen below that level,” it states in the e-mail.
That same day Julie Foster, Executive Director of the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority (RCEDA), informed Stamey that the first draw on a planning grant for the Bitterroot Targeted Economic Development District (TEDD) had been submitted to the state. She gave the appropriate information for transferring the funds to the proper accounts. When Foster noted on the state’s web site in mid November that the draw was not yet paid, she e-mailed Stamey. Stamey said that she would get to it.
Foster e-mailed back a copy of the CDBG Administration Manual and explained that auditors check their grant administration and one of the requirements is that when funds arrive in the County, they have to be disbursed within three days.
“After reading that there may be some loss of documentation and historical knowledge within the Treasurer’s Office, I wanted to make sure that everyone involved with the CDBG/MT DOC projects had the information that may have been misplaced,” wrote Foster.
By November 26, Foster could wait no longer and e-mailed Stamey, reminding her that the law allows the County to hold funds for only three days before disbursing them.
“The invoice will be paid today,” writes Foster, “in the hopes of avoiding issues that could occur by not having timely disbursement. Please transfer these funds today using the information that was sent you on October 24th and is contained below in this e-mail,” wrote Foster.
This was followed up by an e-mail on November 26 from CFO Murphy to Stamey, giving her explicit instructions and telling her to wire the money within 24-48 hours to RCEDA.
On November 21, Cathy Binando, Ravalli County School District’s representative on the County Investment Committee, e-mailed Stamey, forwarding some concerns that the school business officials had sent her regarding “issues in the Treasurer’s Office that have recently been publicized.” She said officials were worried about the impacts that these issues may have on school funds and on the security and interest earned on their investments. She wondered what she should tell them.
“I definitely have concerns with the new treasurer and the lack of leadership,” she wrote.
In another e-mail on the same day, November 21, from Disaster and Emergency Services Director Ron Nicholas to Grants Accountant Tricia Argo, Nicholas states, “I am still trying to find Ravalli County’s payment for the 4th Quarter. I see that on a spreadsheet that the District Reps were sent that Ravalli County was paid for the 4th Quarter, however our records show that we have not received the payment.
“Please look into this as it has become frustrating to me after all this time,” he concludes.
By the end of the month both Justice Court Clerks were complaining about deposits not being disbursed.
On November 25, Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg e-mailed the County Commissioners and Stamey, stating that, “On November 21, 2013 it was requested that I perform a verification of the Treasurer’s vault, as well as a verification of the Treasurer’s desk. I periodically verify the Treasurer’s vault, but this is the first time I have ever checked the Treasurer’s desk. The County HD Director, Robert Jenni, said that it was at the request of Valerie Stamey and that she would like the verification done the following morning. So on November 22, 2013 myself and Chris Taggert, from the County Planning Office, went down with Ms. Stamey to her office. We unlocked her desk and looked in all of the drawers. We found four checks totaling $22,413.41 and cash totaling $100 in the desk. While we were looking in the desk, (Commissioner) Greg Chilcott joined us. The three of us then balanced the vault to the amount listed by the Treasurer’s staff as of November 21, 2013.”
Then, on December 2, Plettenberg sent the following e-mail to the commissioners:
“This e-mail is being sent to document an incident that happened last week on Tuesday. Valerie came up to my office first thing AM wondering if I knew the combination to the Treasurer’s safe. She said that the two Treasurer’s deputies who knew the combination had not shown up for work first thing, one due to illness and one to a doctor’s appointment. I told her I did not know the combination. Later she called me at about 11:30 to ask if I could come down to her office with Robert to count out personal monies she had gotten from her bank to be able to open the office since she could not get into the safe. This money was never used in the office since the deputy who had gone to the doctor… showed up in the meantime and was able to open the safe so that everyone could get to their opening drawers. We documented the situation on a handwritten sheet which was signed by a Treasurer’s clerk who witnessed Valerie bring in the money into the office and by Robert and myself who witnessed her walk out with it.”
On December 3, CFO Murphy e-mailed Commissioner Burrows, stating, “Due to the issues that I am seeing with the A-101 receipting with the Treasurer’s Office and with the lateness in wires and responses to e-mails, and misplaced checks, it would be easy for any possible responsibility for these issues to be placed on outgoing personnel who have worked for this county for many years who have shown the expertise needed for working in that office. I would hope that you would take this into consideration should this type of ‘blame game’ be played. My issue here is that I am ultimately responsible to the Board to update you on financial records of the County. I have delayed the 1st quarter update which by fiscal policy I should have done by the end of October. I have no choice but to do that update within the next few weeks. I am letting you know now that the month end September cash balances do not look right, and when I have finished other priorities with the GO bonding issue and other audit matters, I will be researching into this and reporting to the Board my update.”
Stamey has been out of the office due to personal reasons and could not be contacted for comments on the e-mails.
Borden, whose resignation becomes effective December 20, said, “I believe people have good reason to be concerned.” She said that money was sitting in incorrect funds. She said that Johnson showed Stamey what was wrong with the A-101 receipts and how to fix them but that Stamey ignored her.
“The problem is just escalating,” said Borden. She said the office was now very short staffed and was way behind in processing tax receipts. She said that last year in November they had deposited over $20 million in tax receipts while this year they have only processed $7 to $8 million.
Borden said about her departure for a new job with the Department of Revenue, “Personally, I’m relieved. But I am very concerned about what will happen in that office. There will come a point where it won’t be fixable.”