Wright County residents who have dealt with the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office over the years have noticed a change when they come to transact business at the county’s Government Center. The department has a new name – Finance/Taxpayer Services.
The process took years from inception to fruition, partly because the Auditor/Treasurer was an elected position – it was converted to an appointed position last year – and partly because the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office was a basin for many county functions that had little to do with the finance component.
“There were a lot of disconnected departments within the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office,” Wright County Finance Director Lindsey Meyer said. “When you look at Finance, we have involvement with every department in the county. We handle the money. We track the money. Things like elections have nothing to do with finance. Property tax has little to do with finance except that we collect the money. Ditches have nothing to do with finance. All these duties were statutory and came under our umbrella.”
There was a time when the Auditor/Treasurer had as much power as any member of county government. In the 1970s that began to change as larger counties created administration departments to oversee county operations and change the duties that had fallen on an Auditor/Treasurer position. Wright County Administrator Lee Kelly said many counties still have an elected Auditor/Treasurer, but as counties like Wright have grown, the need to streamline operations has shifted responsibilities elsewhere.
“If you look at many of the smaller counties in the state today, the Auditor/Treasurer is a central figure for so many of their functions,” Kelly said. “Years ago, there were no administration departments, county coordinators or managers. The Auditor/Treasurer was the central figure that collected the money. When something like ditch authority or driver’s license functions were developed or something was mandated by state statute, they had to be assigned somewhere and the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office became that catch-all because it was the main office of a county.”
Kelly said discussion had taken place for quite some time about transforming the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office into task-specific divisions, but said the final decision was made after finding a system that would meet the needs of Wright County.
“We weren’t just looking to replicate what other counties have done, we had to find a solution that would work best for Wright County,” Kelly said. “We had discussed this for some time because there was an interesting mishmash of responsibilities all located in the same office that had no real connection to each other.”
“Administratively, we saw a need to try to better align the duties of our office,” Meyer said. “As you get bigger as a county, you have more responsibilities. The growth makes everything bigger. We had to figure out where some of these functions that the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office used to do could be better aligned with a different department.”
For example, oversight of county ditches/ag drainage was moved to Parks & Recreation. Land records went to the Recorder’s Office. Passports were consolidated into Taxpayer Services.
Ditches/Drainage went to Parks & Recreation, but the Finance/Taxpayer Services Office is still left with disparate aspects of county government. The Wright County License Center, elections, property taxes and even the information desk at the Government Center are all part of Taxpayer Services.
One of the most significant changes was to transform Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivala’s position from an elected position to an appointed position with a clearly defined set of duties – manage fund balances, manage investments, budget forecasting and serving as a direct liaison to the county board of commissioners. This was an important change because an Auditor/Treasurer was an elected office that didn’t require a strong financial background, which has created significant issues for some counties.
“This change establishes consistency,” Meyer said. “As an elected official, you could have a different Auditor/Treasurer every four years, which could dramatically change how we do business. The decision to break off the department is taking a long-term perspective to the financial duties of Wright County. We were fortunate that our Auditor/Treasurers for many years had a financial background, but that wasn’t guaranteed. This establishes the guarantee that our Finance Office is operated by someone with a strong finance background.”
With this piece in place, how Wright County government operates will be more efficient and consistent, which has been a primary objective of making the change.
“One of the goals of this process was to streamline service to the public,” Kelly said. “Having people come to the Government Center and bounce from one department to the next to get one thing accomplished isn’t good customer service. I think there are still improvements we can make to leverage technology to make our customer service better in the future, but we feel this decision was a positive step in that direction.”