Burcham, Rowe vie for job as treasurerPublished 12:01am Sunday, November 4, 2012
Both candidates vying for the job of Lawrence County Treasurer — Democrat incumbent Stephen Dale Burcham and Republican Jerry Rowe — spoke with The Tribune about the issues facing the county office including combating theft of taxpayer dollars, lowering the amount of delinquent taxes and investing the county’s money.
Stephen Dale Burcham
Burcham is running for his third term as Lawrence County Treasurer. The 55-year-old Proctorville native was first elected to the office in 2004. He is a 1974 graduate of Fairland High School and graduated from Ohio State University in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in science and accounting, as well as with a minor in microbiology.
Upon finishing college, Burcham worked at the Ohio State Auditor’s Office for the southeast region. He then went on to work at the Huntington, W.Va.-based accounting firm Hayflich & Steinberg before starting his own practice in 1985, which is now run by his wife and oldest daughter.
In terms of my role for the county, the treasurer is responsible for collecting property taxes and making sure those are posted to appropriate taxpayer’s accounts and giving credit for the taxes they’ve paid.
Then to, of course, invest the money and to safeguard the money. Principles of investment primarily revolve around safety and are very risk adverse. We are not going to put it into projects or into investments that are not going to return both the principle and a rate of interest to the county, for the benefit of the taxpayers.
Investments while in office:
Mostly up until recently it has been certificates of deposit at the local banks. We have gotten a better rate by going through a bid process for that for the first four or five years and that made it competitive in that we bid it out so all the banks had to give us their best offer.
When the interest rates began to fall I looked at what was happening in the market and saw that they were declining steeply and it appears they would be low for an extended period of time, which they are. I was able to go into maximum maturity of five years on certificates of deposit and I was able to invest approximately $4 million, earning 5 percent for a period of three to five years during that time. We still have over $1 million that is earning over 5 percent in interest and that will mature next year.
I was very fortunate to be able to anticipate the decline and to move the available monies we had at the time to take advantage of that.
In addition to that, for short term investments, we’ve used some commercial paper that is issued by U.S. Bank and those are short-term investments that the bank issues which earns a little bit more money than what the overnight sweep account in the bank is.
Neighborhood Investment Program:
I started the Neighborhood Investment Program. We have a number of municipalities and the county had issued bonds at a rate lower than they could borrow the money from a bank, and also a rate higher that I could earn in interest from the bank.
It’s been a real win-win situation.
For instance, Fairland School District replaced the bonds they issued to construct and refurbished their schools and they replaced the note that was paying about 5.5 percent interest with a bond that paid 2.15 percent interest. Their total savings is approximately $365,000, which they are now using to create additional jobs. They are renovating the track. I understand there is a multiple-phase project going on. They are replacing the visitor’s bleachers.
… The Village of Proctorville, for instance, issued a bond that replaced some high interest they had for their water and sewer lines and they were also able to buy two new police cruisers with that, which replaced their aging cruisers that they had tremendous monthly bills on in terms of repairs and maintenance. They have been able to save money both in the interest and in the repair costs of the aging fleet that they had.
Fayette and Perry townships have both issued bonds in which they have purchased fire equipment or a fire truck or additional equipment. Both with savings close to $10,000 for Perry and $14,000 for Fayette, if I recall correctly.
Also, I recently just sat down with the superintendent of Ironton City Schools. There is a turf project here at Ironton that had been in the works for a couple of years. There had been a good grassroots effort to raise some money for that and it appears that, according to the superintendent, the project will actually have to be under their jurisdiction.
They have, I understand, a little over $100,000 raised and a couple hundred thousand dollars in pledges but they still have a little bit further to go. He was inquiring of me as to using this program to provide the financing for the project and be able to repay the financing to the pledges that would be receive. I am very willing to work with the school district in structuring a plan which would meet the pledge receipts as they come in.
And, of course, all of that would have to be approved by bond counsel and the board of education before that could occur. That is in the discussion stage.
… It has really worked out very well. We have already started receiving bond payments from several of the entities — Fairland, Proctorville — and the commissioners actually have a bond payment scheduled here in December.
It’s a real win-win for both the governmental entity and the county. They save money in interest, which they can use for other projects, create jobs, whatever they see as good for them. And it helps the county because it’s a little more interest income that the county has.
… One of the other things I am really excited about is, we also have a neighborhood cleanup project that is going on. I have offered all the townships and villages and cities in the county the right to acquire abandoned property for $1.
Recently Habitat for Humanity has expanded into the Lawrence County area for all regions other than Ironton, Coal Grove and Hanging Rock, which is serviced by the Ashland Habitat for Humanity. I extended the same offer to them. They have purchased a tax lien on an abandoned, dilapidated property in the Rome Township area for $1.
We have had a number of delinquent tax liens sales in the past year which has addressed that particular issue. The delinquent taxes are about 50 percent of what there were when I first took office.
There maybe some year-to-year fluctuations in the amount, but over all, we have significantly addressed the people are delinquent. There was several properties that had in excess of $100,000 in delinquency. We no longer have any outstanding balances of that magnitude.
As a matter of fact, for this past year, I know my opponent has mentioned there is $7 million in delinquent taxes, but of the past year, only $1 million of that is for the past year.
Six million of that is for years preceding that. … The total is $6,445,783 million as of Oct. 31. …
Many of those have to do with abandoned properties. And that’s one of the things I’m trying to clean up by getting rid of these properties. Or the properties have some sort of EPA issues or contamination so that they are difficult properties to deal with. We have been successful in moving some of those to LEDC through the tax lien program and through sale of the property but there are a significant number out there.
We did collect $26 million last year and only $1 million was outstanding from that year. It’s not a number I’m satisfied with and I continue to work with taxpayers to resolve that.
We have over 500 tax contracts going on right now, too, and this number does include everybody who is making payments. When I took office, we had less than 25.
The times have been tough economically and I do want to extend the opportunity to every taxpayer to be able to right their tax situation by setting them up on a payment plan. We are collecting. We have had a number that have paid off completely, but 500 is a significant number and those numbers show up with delinquent taxes but they are by and large being paid on.
It’s an effort to try and help those people get back into a financially sound footing. The advantage of being on a payment contract is that they no longer have to pay penalty or interest as long as they are making their payments and are paying their current taxes in that regard.
… I am not in favor of setting anyone out on the street. People’s homes are their biggest investments and I’m going to work hard to try and help those people stay in their homes. If it means taking their taxes in payment over two years as opposed to all this year, then at least they are making an effort to come to current terms.
Of the remaining significantly delinquent taxes, I’m looking at a number of options to try and clean those up, included a lump sum tax lien sale to a company that would potentially do their best to collect those taxes. They would forward the entire $6 million in that case to us in collection.
Some of those properties that have been abandoned, then they would be able to foreclose on or sell in the future to recover their costs in that regard.
One of the thefts, I would point out, was approximately six years ago. At that time, I had gone to the county commissioners and requested additional security equipment to be installed in my office and was repeatedly denied until after this most recent theft had occurred, at which point we did get the installation of the appropriate security cameras and video recording equipment, which was approved by the security department of the courthouse.
… In both instances, the measures I had implemented when I first took office were responsible for catching these occurrences very quickly. When they were caught, I worked very closely with the sheriff’s office and the prosecutor’s office. Those individuals were tried, convicted and now have felony records.
I have always been very upfront and open on how we handle the funds in our office and that won’t change and shouldn’t change. Theft is unfortunately one of those things that are never going to go away when people have pressures they have brought to bear on them. They may do things that they normally would not do. Both of the employees that were involved with that were longtime employees.
… I find it unfortunate. I’m not satisfied that it happened. We certainly have taken, through the entire time, appropriate steps to minimize the occurrence of these things.
When I first took office, everybody worked out of a single cash drawer. Now everyone has their own cash drawer. Again, when I took office, the accounting system was such that there was no record of who performed individual transactions. Now there is a record of every individual transaction, who performed it, the amount of money, and that’s been going on for the last six years.
Rowe is the Republican candidate for Lawrence County Treasurer. The Ironton native graduated from Ironton High School in 1989 and then went on to earn an electrical engineering degree from Ohio University in 1994.
Rowe has held several managerial positions including engineering manager with Cabletron Systems and later with Liebert Corp. He was also production manager and later manufacturing manager at Liebert and went on to become plant manager, a post he held for the past sixyears until retiring in December.
Rowe also held a seat on the Ironton City School Board of Education from 2004 to 2008.
The role of treasurer is to collect property taxes and invest the county’s money in a financially responsible manner. Which means shop around for the best interest rates. I believe in discussing options with other county treasurers to get their input. Different counties do different things.
Then that money is distributed, obviously about 75 percent of it on average, there are different tax rates for different school districts, but around 75 percent goes to our county schools. And if you look the delinquency amount right now is $7.4 million dollars. We always talk about creating jobs. It starts with teaching our kids. The delinquent amount of money that is due to the school systems could create 92 teaching jobs if that deficit was wiped away. Some townships get up to almost 9 percent. There have been some townships that are due almost $50,000 and, for a township, that is quite a bit of money.
How would you run the office?
I think I would definitely be transparent. I don’t have another job. But also, obviously the taxpayers are our customers, so I would provide the utmost customer service to them.
I would make the office more flexible so we could provide better customer service.
I would establish a better process to collect property taxes, because right now there are $7.4 million in delinquent taxes.
Right now they do have a payment program but they also have, there are opportunities for larger companies to be able to buy tax liens and right now they are not taking advantage of that like other surrounding counties have. In a sense, what happens is that company or companies come in and buy the tax liens up and pay the taxes to the county.
The program is set up but just a handful of people participate in the program now. And I just feel that that process, I mean, if a company wants to come in and buy all the tax liens up and start immediately paying the county the tax dollars to decrease that deficit of $7.4 million, I just think we need to make that decision.
When that happens, the county immediately starts to see the tax money, the deficit. I also feel that one program to help the taxpayers out is the payment program, which I agree with.
I understand people get into situations where they can’t, where they struggle to pay their bills in this economy, so I would definitely work with the taxpayers to continue the payment plan.
… I’m not going to go in and take people’s homes. That’s that not the point of it. We want to make sure we work with the taxpayers. We will still continue the payment plan process.
Would you continue the Neighborhood Investment Program?
To some extent, some counties do it. That’s a program that has been out there for some time. Other counties have used it. But I do know that some counties don’t use it because they are kind of leery of their investment.
What happens if one of those entities default?
For instance, if you loan money to an entity, and they receive $100,000 a year in property tax money, but yet if you loan them $1 million, and they default, I understand that you can not send that $100,000 a year to them, but that is still taxpayer money that is tied up and you could essential lose interest if one of the customers defaults. I think the program is good in some instances, but we definitely need to make sure that the infrastructure is there to support it. I just think, with the liability, it is a risk.
Combating thefts in the office:
Again, transparency in the office, working with your associates. There are only four associates who work in the office. During the peak season they do bring in some more help in.
I think transparency, gaining the respect of the associates who work in the office with you, holding people accountable, making sure that the office is reconciled daily.
It’s hard for me to believe that over $30,000 is missing when the office is reconciling its books everyday.
Also, I believe there could be better checks and balances in place when it comes to collecting the money. For instance, one person collecting, another person verifying, making sure that we have two people sign off on a collection.
I also believe that we definitely need daily deposits as the funds come in. I think developing a relationship with the associates you work with is important.
I ran the largest plant in Lawrence County over the last six years. I know what it takes to be able to gain the trust of the associates to where they could come to you if they get into financial trouble.
I also think every government office that is handling money, there needs to be a credit check and a background check on each one of the individuals to make sure they are credit worthy.
How will your background help you if you are elected?
I was responsible for 11 different departments within Liebert Corp. Each one of those departments had their own budget. We set the budget and I approved the budget every year for each department.
We had checks and balances in place to make sure we stayed within the budget. Each one of those budgets are over $100 million, so I have the experience of handling multi-million dollar budgets from several different entities.
… I think with my experience, I am definitely a people-oriented person. I am a Christian and a military veteran. I think with my leadership skills, and the ability to work with others no matter what party they are from, I think the office of treasurer can be expanded, not only to improve the treasurer’s office but to provide the input to the other offices within the courthouse.
My experience has been in always continually improving processes. Technology is one area I consider myself strong in. I think, if you look at the processes in the courthouse, I think a lot of those processes can be upgraded. I feel that I have the means to be able to help do that.