In less than two weeks the citizens of Aiken County will have the opportunity to change our form of government from council/administrator to council/manager. The main distinction between the two is that the council/manager form ensures the treasurer and auditor will be qualified professionals appointed by the County Council rather than popularly elected citizens who may or may not be qualified. Also Clay Killian’s title will go from administrator to manager with the treasurer and auditor reporting to him.
In order to best understand why this important structural reform is necessary it might be helpful to know a little about how we arrived at our current state of affairs. Before the implementation of home rule in the mid-1970s, electing these offices probably made sense. At one point in time, the resident state senator in each county appointed most local officeholders.
Obviously this concentrated too much power in the hands of one individual which could potentially lead to substantial abuses of power. Therefore, the state legislature decreed that the auditor and treasurer (and a host of other offices such as registrar, coroner, etc.) should be separately elected to create a division of duties between tax bill preparation, tax collections, determining how much in taxes should be paid and how your monies should be invested.
In the mid-1970s when home rule was established, however, the power vested in the resident state senator was transferred and diffused among the nine separately elected Council members making the separate election of a host of offices essentially obsolete.
With this history in mind, my reasoning in support of the council/manager form of government is as follows:
Sound management practices dictate accountability and authority must go hand-in-hand if an organization is to achieve its goals and objectives. Most citizens and state law dictate that the county council is ultimately responsible for properly managing county finances. Unfortunately under our current form of government, the County Council does not have the authority over the treasurer and the auditor to make needed changes in policies and procedures that would make us more efficient.
Every year as required by state law an independent accounting firm completes an audit of the county’s internal controls and compliance with applicable laws and regulations. While Aiken County has always received a “clean” financial opinion (which is good), in every one of the last 10 audits serious operational deficiencies have been cited in departments outside Council’s jurisdiction.
For years Council has begged, pleaded, and cajoled to get these issues addressed, but most remain with us still.
Furthermore, the treasurer’s and auditor’s functions are very technical in nature. I submit that these positions should be filled by the best qualified individuals, not the most popular. Simply put, the public at large is not in the best position to determine whether an individual will make a good treasurer or auditor no more than for the director of public works, chief engineer, or the emergency services coordinator.
You might be interested to know the job description for treasurer adopted by Council a dozen years ago runs for 10 pages and shows the minimum qualifications to include a bachelor’s degree in financial management or business accounting in a related field; supplemented by six to nine years of experience in government finance, accounting, or banking; or an equivalent combination of education, training, and experience providing the required knowledge, skills and abilities. Clearly, the county is looking for a professional accountant.
But what does state law require in an elected treasurer? The candidate must have a high school education and reside in the county. No business in the private sector taking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year would set the bar so low.
Now let’s look at the auditor. If you ask 100 citizens what the Auditor does, 99 will say that the auditor audits. But in truth the auditor audits nothing. Instead, the auditor prepares your property tax bill. Similar to the treasurer, the job description outlines individuals with the appropriate training, qualifications and experience.
And, unsurprisingly, state law merely mandates an individual who is more or less still breathing.
So here’s the choice facing the citizens of Aiken County: Do we want to hire treasurers and auditors with the requisite skills and experience to professionally handle your money and your tax bills? Or do we want to fill these critical positions with the most popular and electable candidates?
Furthermore, do we want county finances in the hands of elected officials whose job descriptions aren’t even understood by the citizens of the county? Or do we want county finances in the hands of the County Council, which is already accountable?
We can do better in Aiken County. Therefore, I urge the citizens of Aiken County to vote “Yes” to this important question the upcoming general election.
Scott Singer represents District 2 on the Aiken County Council.