County Finance Merger to Go to Vote

Humboldt County’s main financial departments are proposed to be merged with a single director heading them — a move that will require voter approval in the Nov. 8 election.

At its May 10 meeting, the Board of Supervisors supported merging the Treasurer-Tax Collector and Auditor-Controller offices into a single Department of Finance. Both of the existing offices are headed by elected officials and supervisors agreed that the director of the new Department of Finance should also be elected.

County staff told supervisors that according to California law, the merger and the establishment of an elected rather than appointed finance department head have to be approved by voters. Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution placing the double-pronged proposal on the Nov. 8 election ballot.

County Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen said the proposed move won’t save money but will “provide better coverage for the financial functions of the county.”

She added that the offices proposed to be merged each have limited staffing and a written staff report states that the small staff sizes are “of concern for departmental operations.”

Auditor-Controller Joe Mellett questioned whether the merger will actually improve performance. He said the real issue is lack of funding.

“If resources were going to come in as a part of this re-organization, I think that we would probably be stronger at that point,” Mellett continued. “But if you bring together two tiny impoverished offices, all you’re going to get is a medium-sized impoverished office.”

Treasurer-Tax Collector John Bartholomew said the merger proposal reflects “sound reasoning” — as long as the new finance director is chosen by voters.

“It really must remain as an elected position because there could be undue influence on the tax collecting operations, from people requesting waivers of penalties and fees and that sort of thing,” he continued.

Former Treasurer-Tax Collector Stephen Strawn was at his post for 38 years and he told supervisors that based on some of his experiences, having an elected, independent director of finance is necessary to preserve the integrity of financial management.

He offered to relate his “war stories” to supervisors in private.

Over 100 other local government agencies “have their money in the county treasury,” Strawn continued, and “they do not, in many cases, want to rely on the Board of Supervisors and/or staff to be influencing the investment of their funds, the collection of their funds and things of that nature.”

Strawn added that during his long tenure, “More than once, I experienced outside influence in the decisions that I had to make.”

Supervisors unanimously voted to place the departmental consolidation on the upcoming election ballot, including the question of whether the new head of finance should be an elected or appointed position.

If voters approve the consolidation, the county will have until 2018 to implement it.

The agenda item also included a discussion on enhancing economic development related to the county’s struggling airports. Supervisors directed staff to develop options that will be considered at a future meeting.