Work overload, processing delays and staff turnover have caused the La Plata County Treasurer to request permission to hire an employee with a higher skill level to help rectify problems within the department.
The treasurer’s office collects property tax revenue and distributes it to 44 taxing districts.
Online record-keeping software has helped streamline processes over the past two years, but population growth and its subsequent workload, turnover and lack of training have increasingly burdened the office and caused staff to fall behind on tax processing.
And in recent weeks, County Treasurer Allison Aichele met with county attorneys to analyze the statutory duties of Colorado county treasurers. Aichele said her office may not be in compliance with as many as 31 of 70 procedural statutes.
“We recognize the importance of the treasurer’s office functioning well,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said. “We have to have confidence that our assets are protected. The treasurer’s office is behind, as any department can get behind. The question is how to catch up.”
The statutes are minor and procedural, such as routinely reporting certain tax information to the board of county commissioners.
Aichele said the office, for example, may not have reconciled all accounts according to procedure, which means to verify that the transactions that add up to the ending balance are correct.
“We haven’t done that for every single account. We’ve done that for banking accounts but didn’t know we had to do that for fund accounts,” Aichele said. “I have confidence we’ve done things correctly. The solution is to hire an employee who can prove we’ve done it accurately.”
Diane Sorensen, county finance director, said the issue pertains to how the treasurer keeps records, and the county will have a clearer idea next week of what needs to change.
Since she was elected in 2014, Aichele said there has been a learning curve because of inexperience as a treasurer.
The office has a vacant position for a customer service tax specialist. Aichele asked county commissioners to reclassify the vacancy so she can hire a fiscal analyst – a higher-skilled employee. If the reclassification is approved, she intends to fill the position within a month.
Four full-time employees, including Aichele, work in the treasurer’s office, and because tax season is in full swing, they face a two-week backlog on processing payments. She expects the gap to close in June or July – if the vacancy is filled.
“This is a problem,” Aichele told commissioners this week. “And we can’t catch up.”
Districts, such as schools, receive distributions through automatic payments and therefore have not seen delays, she said.
County Manager Joe Kerby and Sorensen met last month with Aichele and decided to assemble a comprehensive list of necessary duties by the end of next week. Then they’ll know definitively which requirements aren’t met and draft an action plan, Kerby said.
“Treasurers offices are dictated by statute. How do we accomplish what statute tells us? There is a little wiggle room,” said Tim Kauffman, treasurer of Jefferson County and president of the Colorado County Treasurers’ and Public Trustees’ Association. “For instance, we are mandated to distribute by the 10th of the month. The way each office gets there might be slightly different.”
Though the county has invested in technology, the treasurer’s office staffing level hasn’t changed since 2004, and there has been significant turnover. The deputy treasurer position has turned over twice in two years and was most recently filled after an employee left in November. Two tax specialists also have left the office over the past two years, including the one who quit six weeks ago, vacating the position that Aichele has asked to upgrade.
The office processes 43,000 tax bills a year, which breaks down to 8,600 per employee if there are five staffers.
Garfield County processes about 30,000 tax bills annually with six employees, which means 5,000 bills per worker. And Eagle County’s treasurer’s office employs seven, who process 39,000 bills yearly, or 5,571 per employee.
Aichele said her staff is working two to four hours overtime daily with some weekend hours, which isn’t in the budget.
The tax specialist position cost the county $51,000 for salary and benefits. Upgrading the position would cost $66,000 annually, though that would be offset by $3,000 saved in the time the office was understaffed, Aichele said.
Known as Allison Morrissey when she took office, Aichele defeated challenger Bobby Lieb with the promise of bringing the treasurer’s office into the 21st century with technology to streamline financial processes.
Aichele’s predecessor, Ed Murray, worked in the office in some capacity for about 35 years. The treasurer’s seat is not term-limited, and U.S. citizenship, county residency and being at least 18 years old qualify one to run for the office.
Before entering public service, Aichele held corporate positions with Pacific Gas and Electric as a consultant to improve processes and with Microsoft as a sales-process analyst and software designer. She also was an internal auditor for First Bank System, now part of U.S. Bank. She has a master’s in business administration.
Aichele earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 2013 at Fort Lewis College, where she was awarded the “Gold Key” from the Colorado Association of CPAs for having the highest GPA of the school’s accounting students. She said she has tried to keep abreast of state laws since taking office.
A countywide audit of all departments is conducted yearly, but law does not require an audit specific to the county treasurer’s office. This year, the county budgeted $50,000 for auditing purposes and plans to hire an independent firm specifically to review the treasurer’s office this summer.
Aichele trains twice yearly with the Colorado County Treasurers’ and Trustees’ Association and received about 200 hours of training from 2015 to present through Christine Stouder, a governmental accounting consultant in Grand Junction. The county has paid Stouder $34,000 since 2015 for training sessions as needed.
The treasurer’s office budgeted $7,000 for training this year.
Each check processed manually costs the treasurer’s office $6, and that must be done each time a taxpayer sends a paper check or there is a human error in the process. Aichele said if more taxpayers paid by credit, debit or e-check online, the workload would lift significantly.
“People send paper checks, and that’s not going away. I get 200 to 300 people through the doors each day,” Aichele said. “We have to have staff to get this transactional workload off my employees. This is not sustainable.”
Commissioners will consider the requested staffing position in a special business meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the county administration building, 1101 East Second Ave.