Elected Officials and Judgement Calls

The presentation of the auditor’s report has gotten many people in Fort Scott talking about how they would like to see things handled. Mr. Sercer’s report suggested that the computer system should be setup so it was impossible to override interest charges without the approval of someone from another department.

I disagree with that suggestion.

The last thing we need in government is more hoops for people to jump through to do their jobs. People are elected because we want them to use their judgement. If there is no judgement involved, what is the point of having an election in the first place?

Let me give you an example. Lets say that you are late on your taxes so you call down to the Treasurer’s office and ask how much you owe.  They look at the computer and say you owe $342.76. You make out a check, put it in the mail and it arrives at the Treasurer’s office two days later. When they go to receive the money, the computer says that you now owe $342.88.

As a tax payer, how would you prefer to see the situation handled?

  • Your money is received, but because of the $0.12 outstanding, your property gets given to the abstractor and you don’t find out about it until you discover that your property is going to be auctioned off for the $0.12. By that time there are other fees and expenses that you have to pay in order to keep your property off the sale. In addition there is all the expense of time spent by the court house to deal with another piece of property going through the tax sale procedure.
  • The person entering the amount has to ask the treasurer to override the $0.12. The treasurer needs to involve someone in another office to approve the override. All in all it takes 3 people an extra 10 minutes. Assuming an average wage of $10 apiece the cost for labor is $5 (30 minutes total x $10 per hour). So instead of being out $0.12 the county is now out $5.12.
  • The person entering the amount has enough leeway to say “close enough” but the system records the difference in a way that is public to everyone and viewable on the web. What constitutes “close enough” is set by policy by the Treasurer.

Maybe it is just me, but I would rather see the county just write off the $0.12 but handled in a public way where everyone can see it. What about you? How would you like to see a situation like that handled? In talking with employees in the Treasurer’s office it doesn’t sound like getting a check that differs by a few cents unusual. It happens on a regular basis.

I’m sure some people are asking, “but what if it starts happening for larger amounts?” That is a good question. Imagine that any time they needed to write off some interest, everyone in the county was given a chance to vote whether or not to write of the $0.12 or $2.00 or whatever it might be. Would that be fair? It might be fair, but it would require far to much time to get anything done, but in essence that is why we have an elected official. We don’t vote on every decision. We vote on the person who makes those decisions.

A very simplistic view is that the Treasurer and other public officials need to “just follow the law”. That is true, but the whole reason we have someone in that position is because there are going to be judgement calls that have to be made. If it was just a matter of following a procedure, then why are we even paying a salary for a Treasurer in the first place? They could be replaced by an ATM type device that just takes people’s money for their taxes or an online payment webpage.

As a citizen and as a tax payer, I know I want someone in that position who can act on my behalf and do what is in the best interest of the county as a whole. Many times that might mean writing off small amounts where the cost of collection is greater than the amount itself. In some cases it might mean making a decision that later turns out to have lost some money, but was still a reasonable decision based on the data available at the time.

My point isn’t to discuss the legality or ethics of a particular decision, but merely to point out that the entire reason for having a Treasurer (and other officials) is allow people to elect someone who can use their judgement to make decisions as we’d like to see them made and in the interest of all tax payers. Taking the ability to make judgement calls away defeats the purpose of electing them in the first place.

But that is my opinion.  What do you think?

24 thoughts on “Elected Officials and Judgement Calls”

  1. At last a voice of reason! Obviously there are issues that need to be addressed in the current situation, but the solution isn’t to try to take away the ability of people to apply common sense to their jobs.

  2. I disagree. What would it take for the person from the Treasurer’s office to say to the taxpayer: This amount is valid until xx/xx/xxxx, if you send your check in after that date you will need to call again.

    We trusted that the Treasurer was doing her job, only to find out that was not the case. And we keep getting slammed every year with increases to the mill tax levy.

    A few good questions for the Treasurer would have been: Why was the software changed this year. Did you not notice the problem with continuing to use the old software without updates? (An XL file could have replaced the old software quite well for the payment plan people.) What is the purpose of holding a separate account when payments are not made in full? How much is currently being held in that account? What dates every year does that money get transferred to the account that disburses to all of our entities that get a piece of it?
    I’m sure that I’ll be thinking of more questions…..

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      The software (and most software) will calculate the interest based on the date the payment comes in. So if the county gave some date in the future, they would have to readjust things because their might be an overage where they would need to refund. It might be possible to get close by fiddling with the date and setting the time the payment came in to some point in the past, but to me that seems even worse than showing that the county wrote off a small amount.

      Now the Treasurer’s office could ask, “what day do you think the check will arrive” and then try to calculate what the total payment will be on that day. Then if everything gets delivered on time it will match up, but still that is an extraordinary amount of effort and still you run into the same problem with things getting there a day early or a day late.

      It costs the county less to write off a few cents than it costs to refund money by issuing checks, or putting change in little packets for people to pick up.

      The purpose of holding partial payments in a different account stems from the fact that their new software didn’t support partial payments when the payment plan was first started. So the money was put into an escrow account on the old system and once it reached the correct amount, the full amount was brought over to the new system. This is why when you go online, you don’t see a bunch of individual payments under the properties that were on the payment plan. Now the new system accepts partial payments, so it is much easier to deal with at this point. However, I am not aware if that is being used or not.

      Oh and I don’t think the software was changed this year. I think they have been running the dual systems for some time while waiting for the current system to catch up with the functionality they need.

      It might have been possible to get Excel to handle payment plans. It wouldn’t take much to get it to calculate an amortization schedule based on the suggested payment. This might have solved the problem with the system spitting out random interest rates. However, it would be much more complicated to make it track the payments that come in on various dates. It would not be a trivial task and Excel isn’t probably the best choice for something like this.

    2. As someone who worked for years as an accountant, I can tell you that calculating things like this is a lot more complicated than you realize. It is very common to write off some interest on over due accounts receivable just to get the numbers to match when a payment does come in.

  3. Mark: Do you want to take this to the level of breaking several statutes? Keep in mind that the reason that making this suggestion came about is because we were not talking .12 or this being the only issue. I believe that our County Treasurer has made a lot of judgment calls and this shows why we have statutes that have to be followed. I do wonder if the statutes allow for some small amount to be written off or not as in not worth collecting – I think income taxes have an amount like that if you owe a very small amount? If not, maybe this is something to be pursued through congressional action. I guess, I really can’t think clearing with this seeing what the County Treasurer was able to get away with and wondering why there were no checks and balances in place to pick up on what was going on as in we, the taxpayers of Bourbon County, losing thousands of dollars and “special” privileges being extended to a small group for whatever reason(s).

    1. I am merely pointing out that the “solutions” being purposed run counter to the whole reason we have an elected official in that position to start with.

      Beyond that, who is the group of people you feel benefited? As far as was presented in the audit report it appeared that any “benefit” was randomly distributed — not something that helped a particular group of people.

      1. It appeared to benefit those that knew about the program and harm the rest of the taxpayers. I would think that during the time it was in effect that no properties would have been auctioned since it was possible to be on the program without making any payments IF you were aware of it. It also seemed that some benefited more than others when it came to writing off interest? No, I don’t think it was random. If you have worked with numbers, day after day, year after year, it is easy to see “errors” being made were not realistic.

        I still say if the statute doesn’t allow for a small amount to be written off, change the statute (law) or follow it. You can see in this situation that you cannot always trust the judgment of an elected official, well, in most situations these days!

        So, strictly a “judgment” call? No limits? And, let’s not say “reasonable” because, well……………………Thanks, Mark!

        1. According to Mr. Sercer, most people on the payment plan ended up paying more than they should have. In other words they paid more than they would have if they had of gone in and just made partial payments without being on a plan. So as far as I can tell people who knew about the payment plan did not benefit as a group other than not having their name in the paper.

          Having amortization schedules based on random tax rates (that are on average higher than necessary) doesn’t constitute “special privileges being extended to a small group.” Obviously it wasn’t right and the interest should have been correct, but there is a big difference between making bad calculations and giving a break to your friends.

          I still maintain that the entire reason for having an elected position is so the people can select someone whose judgement can be trusted. The County Attorney has a great deal of discretion in which cases are prosecuted. The Sheriff has a great deal of discretion in how law enforcement is conducted. I believe the Treasurer’s position should allow for their discretion as well and trying to put systems into place to take that away is not in the best interest of the citizens. However, I do support systems that will make their decisions public and easily accessible so they can be held accountable.

  4. Bank sware seems to keep track of both early and late payments and adjust accordingly. perhaps the county should look for a different vendor.

  5. From Topix:

    Mark, after re-reading your post from your site I do have a couple comments.

    You use as an example someone who pays late and then their property is put to auction without them knowing. I find this very extreme and quite hard to believe. First the person you describe would be 3 years delinquent and a final pay in full (all 3 years plus interest and penalties) or the auction process would be initiated. Second the person fails to pay by the final deadline given and third I would find it hard to believe that after the final pay in full due date the Treasurer’s Office would field a phone call from the property owner and just tell them to mail the payment in without addressing the bigger issues of it being past the 3 year deadline for notice of auction and not advising them about fines and additional charges.

    Plus, in this situation what’s to stop the Treasure’s Office from just contacting the property owner and saying they paid an insufficient amount?

    I honestly don’t know if interest is calculated and assessed daily at that point but still the example is to the extreme. Also, at some point you really have to put some level of responsibility and accountability upon the property owner to handle their business instead of expecting others to cut corners to make exceptions for them.

    The way I understand it works is as follows. If you don’t pay your taxes it is printed in the paper for that year. Assuming that you do pay your subsequent taxes the next time you will hear about the original year’s taxes is when you (hopefully) see it listed in the paper that it is going to be sold on the steps of the court house. So if you pay all but $0.12 of the taxes, you won’t hear anything different until three years later when it is ready to be sold. If I misunderstood how it works, please feel free to correct me.

    Regarding whether someone from the treasurer’s office could follow up with individuals to tell them that they had under paid, that is certainly possible. However, within the types of examples I’m talking about, the cost of labor would exceed the cost of the amount being sought. Lets say you send a letter which requires $0.44 in postage, $0.25 in paper, and $1 in labor to produce. Is that a good use of tax payers money if the goal is to collect $0.12? I don’t feel it is and that is why I support giving the Treasurer discretion to establish reasonable policies to handle those situations without trying to get another department to sign off on it.

    If you feel it is reasonable to spend a few dollars to collect $0.12 based on the principle of things, then that is where we disagree.

    As I said before, the whole point of having an election is to get someone in the position where you can feel comfortable that they will make good judgements on your behalf and using common sense. If the goal is to make the position entirely driven by a set of rules, then it no longer needs to be an elected position and can simply be replaced by a self service machine.

    1. I think a lot of people think that it doesn’t cost anything to pay people in the office to make phone calls and send out letters. Everything takes time and I for one don’t want my county spending more money to collect small amounts. Of course I also don’t want the county accidentally forgetting to charge $5,000 of interest, but that sounds like a problem with a particular person not something that is wrong with the law.

    2. Here would be one solution: tell the people when they call that if they underpay due to timing, the underpaid amount (if under $5.00) will be placed on next year’s taxes. No postage, no phone calls and no employee time wasted.

      As far as allowable “judgement calls”, who in the world would think it’s good judgement to place someone on a payment plan for 3 to 5 years to pay one year of [back] taxes?

      1. I’m not sure that an accounting system would let you do what you are describing, although it does make logical sense.

        Regarding the judgement call of putting someone on a payment plan for a long period of time, if such a plan allowed the county to collect some money before the property went up for sale while not being on a plan was likely to result in collecting no money before property went up for a sale, then it might be in the best interest of the county to do some type of payment plan as long as it didn’t change when the property was sold.

        1. Mark: Imagine though, someone not so educated in contracts and taxes signing this contract believing that this would “fix” their problem and get their taxes paid on time so that their property would not be sold. This is a reasonable assumption. So, they are paying regularly and think it is fine and at the end of the redemption period (year 3 of their 5 year contract), their property hits the auction list and a chunk of money they had not planned on suddenly becomes due. Do not forget that this is just not something on paper, it hurts people who unknowingly accept the “judgment” of the County Treasurer’s Office. There are people involved here that must not be forgotten, those who trusted the “judgment” of the County Treasurer. There are people who lost their homes and were probably never aware of a payment plan and others who sold their cherished homes fearing they could not make the tax payments. This nightmare has faces.

          1. I see your point. It isn’t right to lead someone to believe that they can pay off the property before the next tax sale if there is no way it can happen.

  6. Mark: What you are missing is the reason that this was suggested which is that we don’t have a County Treasurer capable of making “reasonable” decisions or judgment calls. Should this include the personal property taxes on a payment plan also even though the plan is totally illegal? What about the judgment calls made on length of time a year of taxes could have been paid off being: 2006 taxes with a payment plan of 1/15/11 to 7/15/15 – this is the person to whom you want to extend “judgment” calls on anything? Note,” the interest rates used in 148 of the 224 plans was apparently correct.” per the auditor’s report. That’s 66% and that is failing grade where I came from! I think the auditor was suggesting “damage” control. Also, I thought there were only 143 people on the payment plan and not 224? The total of unsigned contracts went from over 50% to 6% since you scanned the contracts onto this website? I think it is reasonable to suggest that a little outside intervention is essential with this particular County Treasurer since I am afraid the issue of “trust” in a public official is no longer an issue to discuss in this situation. Yes, we should be able to “trust” our public officials and I think we do until it is proven otherwise. It has been proven. You know, perhaps if she had been administering the program as intended, all of this would not have gotten out of hand including the interest payments which extended year after year past the redemption periods and skipping a tax sale when she, herself, could not pay her 2006 taxes until June 2011. Payment plan did not allow you to do anything you could not have done with partial payments except not get your name in the paper? You can legally be 3 years behind in your taxes? Perhaps I learned a different type of math because, frankly, when I do the math…………………… When you disagree with the statutes (laws) you work to change them. When you have someone that can’t or won’t handle their elected position, you have to put in restraints because it turns out to be really hard to kick them to the curb!

    1. When you disagree with the statutes (laws) you work to change them. When you have someone that can’t or won’t handle their elected position, you have to put in restraints because it turns out to be really hard to kick them to the curb!

      Well that is probably where we disagree. I think most of the laws are fine. The only place I think they could be improved is in making things more open and easy to access. The laws are written back for the days when things were done with paper. I don’t think it is unreasonable to give people access to the general ledger online as a way of increasing transparency.

      As far as how easy it is to remove a public official, it appears to be relatively easy when there is criminal activity. The big thing in this situation that would indicate criminal activity is if things were done in a way that allowed the Treasurer to personally gain from her position. The audit didn’t show that. There are also provisions to remove an official if they display gross incompetence. For example, there was a sheriff in one county that simply never came in to work or did anything. He was removed. However, that isn’t what is happening here. The Treasurer is doing her job. That doesn’t mean that everything is completely accurate or that the public agrees with all the decisions that are being made, but the end result is that the county is still collecting taxes in generally the expected amounts.

      According to Mr. Sercer, there appears to be mistakes in what he audited that cost the county $4,000 to $5,000. This isn’t good, however it is worth keeping in perspective. It wouldn’t surprise me if road grader operators make mistakes that cost the county $5,000 per year. It would surprise me if the appraiser’s office didn’t make far more than $5,000 worth of mistakes per year. I’m not putting down grader operators or the Appraiser, but just pointing out that mistakes are going to happen.

      As citizens we get to elect people who we think will make the fewest mistakes. We can change who is in the position every election, but there isn’t a way to easily kick someone out just because we don’t like some of the mistakes they made. In my opinion Mr. Sercer’s report doesn’t seem to indicate criminal activity. There is a possibility that it indicates incompetence, but I think that is far from a certain conclusion. However, it is something that the commissioner’s can direct the County Attorney to pursue if they feel it is warranted. My guess would be that they are likely to consider the net effect to the county before proceeding with something like that. As far as I’m aware, Mr. Sercer’s audits all show that the effect had a minimal effect on the bottom line.

      1. Mark: Have we seen the list of what properties were supposed to be auctioned last year? Those who had not paid their 2006 property taxes. We can begin with that. Have the allegations by a former employee with greater amounts of interest being written off been investigated yet? Do all realtors get relief on interest if it helps the property move? Can you answer that. What about other businesses? What about all the time before these 8 months. We all know that the County Treasurer had a personal benefit and we have no idea how far that went. We are going to have to agree to disagree on this because not only would I not let her use her “judgment” on anything in that office, she wouldn’t have a key. Mistakes? So, if $5,000 isn’t that much, who wants to go ahead and chip that in so the taxpayers don’t have to make up that difference. And, if $5,000 isn’t that much, they shouldn’t miss my tax payment? Comparing that to another employee – well, let’s see, say the one that uses gravel comes and puts that in my driveway and another comes and smooths it out because in their judgment, I deserve the break? That OK? That was 8 months @ $5,000 and how long has she been in office? She consistently broke the laws that govern her office and that was not a mistake. You will not convince me of that. She knew when she was asked for the list on the payment plan that her tail was in the fan and that is why she tried to pre-charge someone $140.00 to procure it and you got to wonder, where was her “generous” nature or her good”judgment” in this case because look where it went. Mark, these were not mistakes and to me, letting some off like this amounts to being a thief because she denied us, the taxpayers, money due to us and we made up the difference. so, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this “mistake” theory of yours. I rest my case on this one.

        1. I believe that the random interest rates were accidental. If you believe they were intentional, then I would ask you what motive could possibly be behind it?

          It is evident that you are angry about this because you feel it was intentional, but I am not aware what you are basing that belief on.

  7. “The big thing in this situation that would indicate criminal activity is if things were done in a way that allowed the Treasurer to personally gain from her position.” Possible personal gain: (1) While suffering financial hardship, she and relatives were able to attend a wedding in Las Vegas, NV (2) She was able to not publish her name in the newspaper which I believe most likely, looking at current thoughts about her collecting a check from our taxes when shorting us every which way, she would not have been elected as County Treasurer – generally, we don’t knowingly put people suffering from financial hardship in charge of our funds (3) There was not a tax sale in 2011, this would have been for delinquent taxes in 2006 – it was upon her recommendation saying that there were not enough properties to make it cost effective yet, and Mark, your favorite “anyone can be 3 years behind on their taxes, according to the auditor’s report, the treasurer’s 2006 taxes were paid 6/22/11 with the payment plan showing a payment plan for 2007 with 6/22/2011 with a payment of $120.00 – past the redemption period and taxes, interest and fees not paid in full. Now, how many relatives and friends, I do not know as I do not know this person, the Treasurer? Perhaps, the rules for payment plan evolved from her own personal needs? That is pretty much what I see. I am not angry with you, Mark and I appreciate the website and all the work you have done and continue to do to get all the news out to the people here. I do wonder how you determine when something is random that it is not on purpose. I don’t understand how using the same computer program or schedules that you would get “random” mistakes, not to mention that the larger ones should just scream to anyone that works with numbers for a living. This doesn’t make sense. The audit was a good start but there are too many unanswered questions that must be answered and that will take AG/KBI. Keep in mind that I don’t even touch what I hear through the “grapevine” regarding this since I am unfamiliar with the “players”. The community is angry about this and I encourage everyone with information to send it to the AG and you may not get a response but they need to see it. Let them know some of us have integrity and know right from wrong. And, Mark, I know you have integrity and you are making people “think”, thank you.

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