The race to be La Plata County’s next treasurer has proved to be one of the most heated campaigns in this year’s election, with incumbent Allison Aichele challenged by local banker Colton Black.
For months, performance problems within the Treasurer’s Office have been the focus of debate between Aichele, a Democrat first elected in 2014, and Black, a Republican who works for Wells Fargo.
La Plata County’s Treasurer’s Office for years was one of the most stable departments in the county, with longtime treasurer Ed Murray holding the position for 28 years.
Murray had a challenger when he first ran for the office in 1986, but throughout his tenure, which included seven elections, he was never opposed.
Murray retired in 2014, paving the way for the office’s first contested election in nearly three decades between Aichele and challenger Bobby Lieb, which Aichele won in a 11,725 to 10,501 vote.
In March 2017, however, Aichele approached the Board of County Commissioners with concerns her office was out of compliance on a number of procedural statutes and asked permission to hire a highly skilled fiscal analyst to fix the problem.
The Board of County Commissioners approved the hiring of the new employee but also hired an outside firm to review the Treasurer’s Office, costing the county $12,500.
The results of the review, released in May 2017, found rampant errors in processes and booking. The firm, Albuquerque-based Axiom, said it was a “high error rate to what we’re used to seeing.”
But despite a number of process and bookkeeping errors, the review found no evidence of wrongdoing or missing assets.
Over the next year, Aichele said the issues, driven by a personal learning curve on the job, heavy workload and staff turnover, were remedied. But a follow-up review completed this June found many lingering issues at the office, putting the county at risk of fraud.
As a result, the county’s finances are listed as “high risk” and will require the county to pay more for audits for the next three years,
Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said because of being a high-risk auditee, the county paid an additional $16,000 for the 2017 audit. The additional fee for 2018 audit is expected to be $16,500.
“The county will be a high risk auditee for at least 2018 and 2019,” Graham said. “Assuming no additional material weaknesses or other findings are noted in 2018 or 2019.”
It’s these issues that drove Black to run against Aichele, he said. If elected, Black said getting the office in order and out of the high-risk category would be his first priority.
“That’s the biggest thing we need to get taken care of,” he said.
Many of the issues identified in the audit dealt with internal controls, specifically one person doing multiple tasks in transactions. Black said implementing better technology and cross-training employees would be one way to address the issue.
“There are other treasurer’s offices in the state with even smaller staff levels that don’t have internal control problems,” he said. “So there’s a way to fix it.”
Aichele said issues at the office have been corrected since she was able to hire the financial analyst. She said most of the errors called out in the outside review are “standard boilerplate language” improvements to be made.
“They recommended we change titles on the computers, job descriptions and policies to reflect new jobs,” she said. “They never found anything wrong with the process.”
But Black has said four material weakness findings are nothing to scoff at.
“She’s never really owned up to the audit issues,” he said. “It’s always someone else’s fault or it was out of her control. But as the leader in that office, the buck stops with you.”
Aichele has claimed a number of accomplishments in her first term as treasurer, namely the implementation of many new technologies to help the office become more efficient.
It’s a priority she would take into her second term, if elected, she said.
Aichele said she has also increased revenue from “overnight funds” from $11,000 a year to $600,000 a year by outsourcing the handling of the account to Lockbox, a service of Wells Fargo Bank.
Using Lockbox has sped up the transfer of money, but the increase of revenue is largely attributed to rising interest rates out of the treasurer’s control from 0.12 percent in 2014 to 2.23 percent in 2018.
Black has also criticized Aichele spending $55,000 annually to pay an outside investment firm to handle the county’s investments. If elected, he said he would handle investments in-house and save the money.
“We know by state statute what those investments are, so the firm just has to pick from a handful of investments that you can chose from,” he said. “I have the background to be compliant with law and reduce that cost.”
Aichele said the current Treasurer’s Office doesn’t have the knowledge or software to bring investments in-house. And, she said the money paid to the outside investment firm provides a number of other services, too.
The Durango Herald called a number of county treasurers across the state with mixed results about whether offices use an outside investment firm.
Dee Dee Copper, the treasurer in Chaffee County, uses an outside firm.
“It was just very helpful because we have tons to do in the Treasurer’s Office, and my knowledge on investment is not as knowledgeable as others, so I welcome the help, expertise in investing,” she said.
Betty Diller, Archuleta County treasurer, said investments are made in-house, though it’s on a smaller scale than La Plata County.
“It would still be doable,” she said.
Aichele said three years in, she’s learned the ropes of the job.
“I was prepared as anybody can be ... but dealing with public funds is a different animal,” she said. “They have a whole different set of laws, and I didn’t know those until I got on the job. I am extremely comfortable and confident now.”
In terms of the learning curve, Black said he’s read and studied a lot in preparation for the job.
“You still probably learn more on your first day than all that studying,” he said. “But I don’t think it will be as steep of a learning curve than someone else stepping into that position.”