Our view: To err is human, to explain is crucial
We are all human beings, and as human beings, we occasionally make errors. Sometimes, our errors involve inconsequential trivialities and are barely even noticed; other times, they are larger and more impactful, and, as a result, everyone notices.
But, large or small, noticed or otherwise, we’ve found the best way to address an error— any error — is to acknowledge it; correct it, if possible; accept responsibility for it; and, probably most importantly, determine precisely how the error occurred, share those findings with all who may have been affected and develop a plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
In late April and early May, the Routt County Treasurer’s Office was faced with just such a situation, when several taxing entities in the county were underpaid the April property tax revenues due them. In total, the underpayment amounted to about $5.8 million.
So, an error was made, and since the result involved almost $6 million being effectively missing and unaccounted for through more than two months, we’d describe the error as being of the larger, more impactful variety.
But, as we asserted in the beginning, the appropriate steps for addressing any error, large or small, are the same, and in some ways, Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn has done an admirable job in following them.
First, she acknowledged and took responsibility for the error in a July 20 letter to the more than 100 taxing entities affected, writing: “As treasurer, I take full responsibility for this partial distribution, as I take full responsibility for all of the successes and setbacks of the entire Routt County Treasurer’s team.”
Second, she took steps to remedy the error, saying the problems that precipitated it — employee error, exacerbated by an unexpected software anomaly, according to Horn — have since been corrected and all the shorted tax recipients had been made whole as of July 24. She added that the entities in question will actually come out better in the long term, as they are to receive the interest earned during the two months and 14 days the funds sat in a county bank account rather than in the coffers of those who were due to have received them.
So, Horn acknowledged, owned and corrected the error, and for her efforts in those respects, we offer her our thanks.
We are concerned, however, with the way she’s addressed the final leg of the equation: Determine precisely how the error occurred, share those findings with any and all who may have been affected and develop a plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Such was at the root of two letters penned by the Routt County Board of County Commissioners and hand-delivered to Horn July 27 and Aug. 1. The letters posed the following questions:
- What is the normal procedure for distribution of property taxes to jurisdictions, the full amount of property taxes collected for the period and the normal procedure used to ensure the distributions are made on time?
- What caused the failure to make full distributions in April 2017?
- What were the circumstances that brought about the failure of procedures intended to ensure accuracy and timely distribution.
- How have the internal procedures been changed to ensure accurate and timely distributions in the future?
- What Routt County fund was the interest taken from, and under what authority was the interest paid?
- How were the undisbursed funds safeguarded during the more than two months they were held by the county?
Horn answered some of these questions in an Aug. 2 reply letter to county commissioners, but at the same time, she took issue with the manner in which the inquiry was made.
“… while I appreciate the commission’s concerns, its July 27 letter and Aug. 1 followup seem unduly antagonistic and formal. Your July 27th letter requested an ‘immediate response’ to a one-time glitch that our office had already worked together with the finance department and others to identify and address. Repeating the same questions three working days later, while citing the commissioners’ authority to review the treasurer’s books, accounts and vouchers, implies something untoward.”
Actually, losing track of $5.8 million for two months implies something untoward, and, though we’re certain nothing untoward actually occurred, the implication is there, letter or no.
We would think that Horn, who recently declared her intention to seek the office of Colorado state treasurer, would want such an implication laid to rest. Furthermore, the people who paid the taxes in the first place — as well as the entities who were denied payment for more than two months — have a right to a full explanation of how the error occurred and the steps Horn is proposing to ensure it is not repeated.
If the treasurer is not able to supply this information, we suggest an independent agency be engaged to do so.
In her letters, both to taxing entities and to the Board of County Commissioners, Horn offered assurances that her office is committed to being transparent and conducting its work in the full light of day. These are admirable, necessary qualities for anyone in whom we place our collective trust, and they are qualities we’re certain Horn will want to carry forward and champion in her ambitions for higher office and greater responsibility.
In the final analysis, both Horn and county commissioners are ultimately accountable to the voters who placed them in office and the taxpayers who trust them to discharge the duties of those offices.
Those are the people who are due a better, more thorough explanation, and we call upon Horn to provide one.
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