story by Ryan Saylor
A League of Women Voters forum in Fort Smith Monday (May 12) pitted two county officials against each other as they battle for the position of Sebastian County Treasurer/Collector.
Hotz and Miller are Republicans. No Democrat filed to run for the office, meaning the winner of the May 20 primary will win the general election and take the oath of office in January.
Incumbent Treasurer/Collector Judith Miller, who began serving in the office in 1999, is fending off a challenge from Sebastian County Human Resources Director Steve Hotz, who in his opening remarks said his little more than two years in county government has shown him inefficiencies within Miller's office.
"I'm seeing redundant expenses that I think are a waste of taxpayer's money," he said, citing computer, internet, e-mail and consulting expenses that he said could be done in-house by the information technology department already employed by the county.
During her opening statement, Miller offered a defense of her office, explaining that certain redundancies are required under state law.
"Mr. Hotz is talking about the redundancy in the office. Well, yes, we do have (redundancies), if you want to say that. I do have a separate internet, which we must have. We have to be up and running at all times. If you, as a taxpayer, come in and you're not able to pay your taxes, you get very upset with us. So we have to have a system that will continuously operate and never be down."
An issue both candidates addressed early in the forum, held at noon Monday at the Golden Corral on Rogers Avenue in Fort Smith, was the office's automation fund. Use of money from the fund has been an issue of contention as Miller has attempted to use the funds to enter into a contract for computer hardware maintenance that Sebastian County Judge David Hudson has refused to sign. As recently as April 15, Miller was threatening to sue Hudson if he continued to refuse to sign the contract, which totals $18,000, though no lawsuit has ever been filed.
Hotz said while state law is restrictive in the uses for the fund, he would find ways to use the money across the county.
"I realize it's restrictive on what leftover money can be used for, but we'll find uses even if we have to go back to the legislature or whatever it takes to find those uses. But any dollars used are going to be used wisely. If they're not needed, we'll find a use for them to enhance the county's system and make it better. So automation funds will be used for automation. If there's more than that's needed for automation, we'll find a way to use them wisely for the county. I don't know those answers yet, but first I have see what we have and what we have left over. But as far as using it just because you have it, just because it's there, that's not a wise use of taxpayer's money."
Miller said the treasurer's and collector's offices have automation funds and by state statute, the money cannot be pushed to other county offices, as Hotz proposed.
"We are governed by this law that says you can only spend this money for anything that makes your office operate better. It also says you cannot use this money for another office. You can pay a little bit on a system, but you cannot take the money and give it out. The county clerk is the only one that has an automation system like this. The treasurer's automation has to be used for the treasurer's office and the collector for the collector's office. There's no ifs, ands or buts about that. There is a law that states it and that's how we operate it."
One area where the candidates showed clear disagreement was on the office of the comptroller, which is currently overseen by Hudson's office. Miller said she would like to see the office merged with her's, while Hotz said it was a good check and balance outside of the treasurer/collector's office.
"I don't think it's too redundant. It gives you a second answer for looking at the books. It's not just the treasurer looking at your numbers, but when you're through at the end of the month, the treasurer puts out a number and the comptroller's office also puts out a number. But they can still do that on the same system."
The mention of a new system refers back to a previous attempt by Miller to switch to an Arkansas-based software company to code software for her office at a cost of $700 per month after another software package that cost the county $500,000 failed to deliver the needs of Miller's office. She said at the time that she agreed to the software package at $500,000 at Hudson's urging, though after 16 months she still did not have a working package, meaning both offices were working in different software systems.
Miller said during the forum that she was in favor of merging the offices, adding that the existing set up was wasting taxpayer dollars.
"I think they should be under the treasurer's office because they are dealing with the same things we are. …Right now, out comptroller's office is duplicating everything that, by law, the treasurer should be doing. We're the ones supposed to be doing booking, we're the ones supposed to be doing the general ledgers, we're supposed to be keeping up with all the money. It is the treasurer's job to do this and if we could bring them into the treasurer's office…it was three people in that office. Now it's five because they're duplicating everything (in) the treasurer's office. That's a waste of money. We can bring two people up to accounts payable and payroll make this very simplified. I think it would be better under the treasurer's office."