Our view: Routt County treasurer needs to change tactics
“Less confrontation, more collaboration” was the title of a Steamboat Pilot & Today editorial published on Aug. 16, 2016, that encouraged Routt County’s elected officials “to work together to solve community problems and issues” and specifically called upon Treasurer Brita Horn to work more collaboratively with her fellow officeholders.
The editorial was prompted by Horn’s decision not to accept Peabody Energy’s overdue property tax payments without interest and her failure to communicate her strategy to the commissioners and the 18 taxing entities affected by her decision.
Fast forward to today, and it appears that the friction between Horn and the Routt County Board of Commissioners still exists, and this time around, that tension is costing taxpayers money.
On Dec. 6, Scott Franz reported that a poor working relationship between Horn and the county commissioners and the county attorney was forcing taxpayers’ money to be spent on a $350-an-hour, Denver-based law firm retained by the treasurer’s office.
Horn submitted a $12,128 invoice from Klenda, Geessler and Blue for 34 hours of work they did in connection with a grievance hearing that was held regarding a Treasurer’s Office employee who had been terminated. Horn had to ask the commissioners to approve a supplemental budget increase to cover the expense.
The money was spent before Horn conferred with the commissioners, and under normal circumstances, the county attorney’s office would represent the elected official or department head during a grievance hearing at a much lesser cost to county taxpayers. Instead, due to the strained relationship between her and other county leaders, Horn hired an outside attorney to represent her at taxpayers’ expense.
The tension between the treasurer and the county commission dates back to 2015 when Horn filed a criminal complaint against the commissioners for creating a PayPal account to allow citizens to pay building fees online, which Horn claimed was illegal. Once again, in this situation, Horn did not come to the commissioners with her concerns about the account but instead accused them of criminal activity and asked the Routt County Sheriff’s Office to investigate.
And in another communication breakdown, which occurred this August, Horn failed to inform the commissioners of a mistake that was made by her office, which deprived schools, towns and other taxing entities of $5.8 million in property tax revenue for more than two months. The commissioners only got their questions answered about how the missed property tax distribution occurred after sending two letters to Horn outlining their concerns and asking for answers.
The answers finally came back to the commissioners in the form of another letter. Commissioners told the Steamboat Today that the treasurer has instructed them to only communicate with her or her office in writing, which seems overly formal and another barrier to open conversation between county leaders.
We continue to believe that the county treasurer is taking a more confrontational approach to her duties than necessary. It seems to us that the treasurer and the commissioners should be able to discuss county business, especially when it pertains to taxes and tax collection mistakes, face to face without the involvement of an outside attorney. We realize the treasurer runs her office independently but we don’t think that precludes her from openly communicating with other county officeholders.
Recently, Commissioner Tim Corrigan expressed his regret that the commissioners and the treasurer didn’t have a better working relationship, stating, “The part that has disappointed me the most is our collective failure to communicate better about all of these things.”
We agree with Corrigan, and once again, would advocate for more collaboration between county departments, and in particular, we urge the treasurer to change tactics and communicate more openly and transparently with her county colleagues.
Failure to do so not only negatively impacts taxpayers, but it also hurts her image as a leader who knows how to work with others to get things done. This behavior is distracting and negatively impacts the effectiveness of county government, which is paramount to all taxpayers.
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