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Lawmakers cool to eliminating elected Washington Co. treasurer

October 31, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Legislation to eliminate the elected office of the county treasurer, requested last month by the Washington County Commissioners, is unlikely to find a sponsor among the county's state senators and delegates, delegation members said last week.

The commissioners included the proposal in a list of legislative requests they discussed with the delegation Oct. 20, saying they wanted to study the idea of consolidating the treasurer's office into the county's budget and finance office and making the treasurer an appointed staff position.

"To be quite honest, when it was presented to the delegation, we were quite surprised that they would even bring up the subject," said Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany.

Myers, the chairman of the delegation, said he would not support changing the treasurer's position or even touching the legislation.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm not even going to ask for it to be drafted," Myers said.

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Myers noted other nearby counties that had eliminated their elected treasurers had waited until the sitting treasurer retired to do so, which he said was a "very courteous, wise move on their part."

Myers said Todd Hershey, who has been Washington County's treasurer since 1987, has done an outstanding job, and only when he retires or seeks another position should the county bring up the subject of changing the office.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he adamantly was opposed to the request and sensed it would not be going anywhere.

"I think any time you take power away from the voters, particularly without giving them a say in that, I think that is bad for democracy," Shank said.

Hershey said he, too, was surprised by the proposal, which he felt ignored his strong record of running the treasurer's office efficiently.

Since Hershey started in 1987, the county has grown and the treasurer's work has grown more complex, but he has kept the office at the same five-employee size, he said.

He said he accomplished that by making decisions with the taxpayer in mind, such as choosing a lower-level billing and collection software that the current staff could operate so the office wouldn't have to hire new staff to run it. In addition, Hershey and his staff do not attend big conferences and participate in only the most essential training programs.

"I've always tried to keep it down to what is required, not to get extravagant with taxpayer money," Hershey said. "We do meat-and-potatoes work down here."

Hershey said he got the impression that the commissioners thought consolidating the treasurer's office into the budget and finance office would create more efficiency.

However, Hershey noted while the budget and finance office's expenditures had grown 478 percent since 1987, the treasurer's office expenditures had grown only 207 percent.

"If you're making the argument that eliminating the elected treasurer's position will add efficiency, the data doesn't support it," Hershey said.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire, who originally brought up the idea of converting the treasurer to a staff position, said the suggestion had nothing to do with Hershey or his office's efficiency.

Aleshire said the suggestion grew out of his desire to link the salaries of elected officials to objective criteria to avoid the politically awkward process in which the county commissioners review those salaries every four years.

Making the treasurer a staff position would mean one less salary that would have to go through that "awkward political process," Aleshire said.

Hershey said that logic did not justify a change because the treasurer's salary already is linked to the county's step and grade system.

Aleshire said the fact that the treasurer is paid like a county staff member is all the more reason to make him one.

Hershey said that being an elected official makes him work harder to run his office efficiently because, in a non-policymaking office, his efficiency is all he has to run on.

In addition, Hershey said he thinks people need to feel like they have input into the administration of county government.

"I think people feel alienated from government," he said. "I think moving in this direction would be a step backward."

Aleshire said that was a "feel-good argument," but not a logical one.

As a county-appointed position, the office "would still provide the same level of public response as our public works office, as our sheriff's department, as our fire and emergency services department," Aleshire said.

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