By Michael Howell
After close to four months on the job in what has been a tumultuous transition, including the resignation of three staffers who were extremely critical of her abilities, Ravalli County Treasurer Valerie Stamey is still struggling to bring the office up to speed.
At her last meeting with the County Commissioners on Tuesday, December 17, Stamey stated, “Regardless of how or why there have been issues, I am responsible for this department and accept full responsibility for all actions in the Treasurer’s office.” She reassured them that she was going to do “whatever is necessary to get the wheels back on the bus so to speak.”
She told the commissioners that she underestimated the ability to access details of the Treasurer’s office that are only available from existing staff. She complained about the lack of any documentation concerning daily functions to help in the transition. As a result, she said, some services were not supplied to existing agencies that they normally received and she is working to correct that.
“The struggle to gain information is not something I would wish on my worst enemy,” wrote Stamey.
She noted that the county lacked some best management practices used in other counties and she was working on incorporating those into her office.
She said that tax bills were generated and sent to taxpayers and expected to have that completed in a week. She said that she was personally calling taxpayers at night and on weekends to verify that their payments had been received and was anticipating hiring some new employees soon.
“In closing, I see improvements and progress being made daily. I am building working relationships with those who have the ability to assist me in resolving our remaining issues as quickly as possible,” concluded Stamey.
However, pressure to get the tax payments that are rolling in receipted and posted to the proper disbursement accounts is mounting. On December 19, two days following her update, a letter from the City of Hamilton was hand-delivered to the commissioners expressing the City’s concerns.
Mayor Jerry Steele notes in the letter that tax and assessment remittances to the City are supposed to be received on a monthly basis within 30 days of receipt by the County Treasurer. He states that the last remittance received was in the first week of November, for the month of September. He said that the city’s finance director had contacted the Treasurer on December 4 and was informed that the October payment would be submitted, “no later than December 9.” He notes that date had come and gone without that payment being submitted or any explanation as to why not.
“We realize that a transition is taking place within the County Treasurer’s office and that it is a somewhat stressful time for the Treasurer,” sates the letter. “However, we are still owed the money that is due us, and we urge the County Commissioners and County Treasurer to take the appropriate steps to expedite our payments in a timely manner.”
The City’s Special Projects Director Dennis Stranger told the City Council at its last meeting that he had contacted Local Government Services, from the Department of Administration, in Helena to see if they could help. He said Bureau Chief Kay Gray indicated that her office would be available to help if the County should ask for assistance. He said the County was notified of this possibility on December 12.
“But they can’t force the county to accept assistance,” said Stranger.
Mayor Steele noted in the letter to the commissioners that the City is also concerned that the payments are correct.
“We would like verification that the amount of mill levies and assessments to be billed out this current fiscal year were done so in the amounts that the City requested,” he concludes.
As of last Friday, the City of Hamilton has received no response to their letter, according to Stranger.
The Town of Stevensville and the Stevensville Rural Fire District have also recently contacted the County over the same issues.
Jim Moerkerke, board trustee for the fire district, wrote, “Since we do not know the status of state transfers or tax collections since mid-summer, we are unable to begin budgeted improvements and have been using resources planned for capital improvements to assure operations are funded.” He asks the county for an immediate estimate of the balance of the district’s account as well as an accurate accounting, within two months, of all receipts and payments to that date.
Hamilton School District Superintendent Tom Korst wrote the Treasurer on December 19, stating that his business manager had attempted to reach the Treasurer by e-mail twice and also by phone regarding the interest payment for the District’s bonds that is due by January 1, 2014 and had not received a response.
“HSD#3 expects that the attached bond payment will be made on time,” wrote Korst. “If said payment is not received on time, then your office shall be accountable for the payment of any fees or penalties for late payment.”
According to Klarysse Murphy, the County’s Chief Finance Officer, first quarter (July 1-September 30) financial reports show a serious lag in receipts of intergovernmental revenue. This would include grant revenues, state entitlement funds, gas tax apportionment and Secure Rural School funds. With $3,396,515 in revenues budgeted for the year, only $246,376 has been posted, which means only 7.2% of the budgeted receipts have been collected for the first quarter. It should be closer to 25%.
Records for collection of property taxes for October-November are also of concern. This year only $176,300.81 has been collected over that period while last year’s records show $5,622,493.29 was collected. Intergovernmental revenues for the two-month period this year show $337,715.18 was collected. Over the same two-month period last year, $1,042,874.08 was collected.
Expenses for the first quarter, on the other hand, are tracking at roughly 25% of annual budgeted expenses, except for Variable Costs which rose from 9.1% of budget last year to 54% of the budget this year. The one line item that has seriously affected the Variable Cost fund is Litigation/Settlement costs which is already at 98% of its annual budget. Budget for litigation/settlement was set at $83,930 for the year, but first quarter accounting shows that $82,334.50 has already been expended.
Murphy said that the annual audit report could be postponed for a short while but the figures at this point are alarming. She also stated that she was not seeing any level of concern being expressed about the problem. She surmised that there must be boxes of un-deposited checks sitting in the Treasurer’s office. The tax payments cannot be deposited, she said, until they are reconciled.
Last Friday, County Treasurer Stamey refused to comment on the situation beyond what she stated in her last report to the County Commissioners on December 17.