County auditor-treasurer objects to change at his office

Mille Lacs County is having one of its administrative services employees supervise the auditor-treasurer’s office, an idea that doesn’t sit well with Auditor-Treasurer Phil Thompson.

The arrangement is for six months, after which the County Board will evaluate how it worked. The county commissioners passed the motion following a long discussion with Thompson at the June 3 meeting of the Mille Lacs County Board. During the exchange,

Thompson voiced strong objection and declared that the board was not according him the respect he felt was due regarding his nearly 36 years of service to the county. Twenty of those years have been in his current position. County Administrator Roxy Traxler explained that the recommendation to make the temporary change came out of the board’s last workshop discussion.

 Mille Lacs County Auditor-Treasurer Phil Thompson addresses the Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners on June 3, voicing his displeasure with the action the board was about to take concerning his department. Times photo by Joel Stottrup

Mille Lacs County Auditor-Treasurer Phil Thompson addresses the Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners on June 3, voicing his displeasure with the action the board was about to take concerning his department.
Times photo by Joel Stottrup

The board’s motion was to assign Carol Hulett, a former employee of the auditor-treasurer’s office and currently the county’s administrative financial specialist, to supervise the auditor-treasurer’s office until the end of the year.

“Since a reorganization of staff in the Historic Courthouse is underway, this would be a temporary assignment pending the final outcome of the reorganization, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2014,” Traxler explained.

Thompson, quoting a May 28 email he had sent to the county officials, said, “This has been blown way out of proportion.”

Thompson didn’t define what had been blown out of proportion, other than stating in the email that: “Yes, some issues of concern were discussed months ago, and the discussion was received and we are moving forward.”

Thompson then told the board: “Supervision by an outside source is not necessary, and I feel would be counterproductive. What we do need is a worker to perform auditor-treasurer office duties.”

Thompson said a longtime employee at the auditor-treasurer’s office had retired in early January and that the County Board had not approved Thompson’s request to replace her. Thompson also told the commissioners that he feels his department has been running very efficiently. He used as evidence a benchmark study by Benton County comparing the costs of the auditor-treasurer’s office in various counties. It showed both the cost per capita and per $1,000 in tax capacity.

The material was from 2013, and the Mille Lacs County auditor-treasurer cost per capita was at $15.79, he said. That compares to Benton’s $14.76, Chisago County’s $13.24, Isanti’s $23.27, Morrison’s $34,58, Sherburne’s $14.72, Stearns’ $33.85, Kandiyohi’s $16.06, McLeod’s $17.32, Meeker’s $28.69, and Todd County’s $9.46. It means Mille Lacs’ office operated at about three-fourths of the $20.71 average per capita cost, Thompson said. The cost for Mille Lacs per $1,000 tax capacity was shown to be $24.53, and the average for the same list of counties was $25.12.

Thompson and four other workers have made up the office since the January retirement. Thompson argued that he felt Hulett would be caught up with having her own work to perform as the county’s administrative financial specialist while doing the supervisory duties in the auditor-treasurer’s office. He also said he didn’t feel she would have enough expertise to do what needs to be done in his office. The auditor-treasurer’s office will also have more work at election time because of the new state law this year where people no longer have to state a reason for wanting to cast an absentee vote, he said.

As a result of the change, there will be quite an increase in absentee votes to deal with, Thompson said. One-stop shop Thompson brought up the concept of a one-stop shop during the discussion, indicating the board was looking at restructuring so that people would only have to go to one department to access the services of all the departments in the courthouse.

Thompson objected to the idea, arguing that residents wanting to access services there would no more expect to have a one-stop courthouse setup than they would expect to find a meat department in a hardware store. The county nearly a decade ago consolidated some departments, such as in land services and in veterans and community services, in order to increase efficiency. Traxler denied after the meeting that a one-stop shop would mean all the departments would be combined and said the commissioners will be working until the end of this year to come up with a reorganization plan. One question that Thompson raised after the board passed its motion was whether Hulett would be taking orders from Thompson or vice versa.

Traxler and board members answered that Thompson and Hulett could work that out when Hulett arrives back from vacation June 9. Commissioners respond All of the commissioners – Chairman Phil Peterson, and Tim Wilhelm, Genny Reynolds, Roger Tellinghuisen and Dave Oslin – stood firm behind their decision, voting unanimously to pass the motion, and in their defense of the change. Wilhelm told Thompson that the commissioners are under pressure to cut costs because of Mille Lacs County having higher real estate taxes per capita than so many surrounding counties. Because the cost of doing business in Mille Lacs County is higher, the board is looking at how it can gain more efficiency and cut operation costs, Wilhelm said.

Thompson answered that it isn’t fair to compare Mille Lacs to many other counties because it has such a high amount of property that pays no property taxes and that it has so little in the way of high tax producing properties. He said that Mille Lacs doesn’t have stores like a Menard’s like he sees in Elk River, and said Mille Lacs County’s “biggest entity,” the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s Mille Lacs Grand Casino, is property tax exempt. When Thompson said he was trying to be efficient as possible, Wilhelm said the county still has to cut costs. Thompson said he is not opposed to looking at changes to cut the county’s costs but he doesn’t believe that what the board is doing to his office will be an improvement.

When Thompson suggested that Hulett would not be doing the kind of work he needs done in the auditor-treasurer’s office, Reynolds disagreed. Reynolds said she didn’t think Hulett would be “just standing around” and asked Thompson if he would be willing to try the arrangement. Thompson answered that he foresees problems with it. Peterson told Thompson he hoped that having Hulett as a temporary supervisor in Thompson’s department wouldn’t result in “animosity” and that he hoped he will “treat her with respect.” Thompson answered that he thinks some animosity could result from the situation but also didn’t think anyone should think he would not be showing respect to Hulett.

“You know me,” Thompson told Peterson.

Thompson said that having someone from one department supervising another department would be like having him supervise the dairy farm that Peterson is a partner in. Tellinghuisen, picking up on the word “baby-sit” that Thompson used in describing what Thompson thought would happen with Hulett supervising his department, asked if Thompson really thinks his staff members feel that way.

Tellinghuisen also said that if this arrangement doesn’t work out, the board can always reverse it. Thompson said the board could avoid that by just not implementing it.

“Seems to me it would be a little extra help,” Tellinghuisen pressed on. “It would be very little cost to the county. Like Phil (Peterson) suggested, let’s try it. Maybe it isn’t any good (and then it could be undone).”

Oslin agreed and added that he felt there will always be duties for Hulett in the auditor-treasurer’s office. Also, with Hulett doing supervisory work there, it would free Thompson up to do other tasks, Oslin said. Thompson, bringing up the one-stop shop idea, said he has seen the concept end up unsuccessful in other counties.

When pressed by the board to name one, Thompson said Pope County. Wilhelm noted that the county is not looking to terminate people, but instead to reduce costs through attrition.