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Commissioners want treasurer to be hired staff position

Suggestion draws mixed reaction from Washington Co. delegation

Suggestion draws mixed reaction from Washington Co. delegation

October 20, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- A proposal to change the position of county treasurer from an elected office to a hired staff position drew mixed reactions from the Washington County delegation Tuesday.

The Washington County Commissioners suggested the change, which would require state legislation, during a meeting with the delegation to go over the county's legislation requests for the 2010 Maryland General Assembly session.

The item was one of 10 the commissioners asked the delegation to pursue. Their requests also included controversial proposals related to the salary recommendation process for elected officials and the commissioners' authority over the PenMar Development Corp. board.

The commissioners were not necessarily resolved on eliminating the elected treasurer's office, but had agreed the possibility should be studied, so the change was included in the list of requests, Assistant County Attorney Kirk C. Downey said.

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Changing the treasurer's position from an elected office to a staff position would be consistent with the trend in other counties throughout the state, said Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Washington/Garrett/Allegany.

"They're moving that way because most counties have a finance officer which does a lot of the things the treasurer used to do," Edwards said.

The Maryland Association of Counties Web site shows only five Maryland counties with elected treasurers: Calvert, Cecil, St. Mary's, Somerset and Washington. Baltimore City has an elected comptroller.

In Washington County, the treasurer is primarily responsible for revenue collection, such as processing property tax payments.

Allegany County made the switch from an elected treasurer years ago, when the sitting treasurer said he wasn't going to run again, Edwards said.

The change might be stickier in Washington County, where Treasurer Todd L. Hershey has been county treasurer since 1987 and ran unopposed for five of his six terms, legislators said.

"I think you do need to respect the fact that you have a sitting treasurer in this case," Edwards said. "I think you do need to look at the person."

The commissioners did not say whether Hershey would be hired to lead the reorganized office.

Hershey, who was at the meeting, said he thought being an elected official made the treasurer more focused on serving the taxpayers, which he said he has demonstrated by keeping his staff at the same level for his nearly 23 years in office.

"I think the issue is about removing citizens from the process," Hershey said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, agreed that the election process makes the treasurer more accountable to the public.

"People who walk into that office have an opportunity (that if they) get good service, then it reflects well on his office and he gets re-elected ... and if they get bad service, then he is replaced," Shank said. "This legislation would be taking that away."

Shank said voters' rejection of charter home rule in the last election indicated they did not want to consolidate more power in county government.

"I think a great deal more study needs to be undertaken before we just unilaterally abolish the position," he said.

Another item left up in the air on Tuesday was the commissioners' request for changes to the salary review process that the state requires every four years to evaluate the salaries of certain elected officials.

Currently, a nine-member salary study commission reviews the salaries of elected officials, including the county commissioners, and issues recommendations. Based on that report, the county commissioners must then pass on their own recommendations to the delegation. The county commissioners can recommend to accept, reduce or reject raises suggested by the salary study commission.

Several of the county commissioners have said they are uncomfortable voting on their own salaries, so they proposed changing state law to say that if they submit no recommendations to the delegation, the salary study commission's recommendations would be passed on directly to the delegation.

In addition, after Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire argued the salary review process was too subjective, county attorneys drafted a list of factors the salary study commission should consider in formulating its report, which the commissioners said they would like to see added to the state law.

Delegation members said they understood how politically awkward it could be to vote on one's own salary, but expressed some reservations about the proposed changes.

Edwards said it was more appropriate for the county commissioners to evaluate recommendations than the delegation.

"You pay the bill; we don't," he said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said he feared the salary study commission would lose its value if its recommendations were ignored by the county commissioners year after year. Munson also said that having the county discuss and vote on the recommendations makes the process more transparent to the public.

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