Davis and Erickson almost assured second terms
by Mike Kroll
At just over five months until the March 21, 2006 primary most of the news and speculation has concerned candidates for governor or congress but local candidates should also be vying for a spot on the November ballot for Knox County offices. That seems unlikely as it currently appears that none of the four incumbent county officials standing for reelection will be challenged either in the primary or general election. Only one, Sheriff Jim Thompson has officially announced candidacy for reelection but County Clerk Scott Erickson and County Treasurer Robin Davis confirmed for me this week that both will be seeking reelection and are currently circulating petitions. Those petitions must be submitted to Erickson's office between December 12th and 19th. It is confidently anticipated that Regional Superintendent Bonnie Harris will also seek reelection.
Although they are affiliated with rival parties Davis and Erickson like and respect one another and have developed a close working relationship within the Courthouse. Davis is the “senior” elected official of the two having easily won the Treasurer's office in 2002 against Republican stockbroker Ernie Miller who moved away shortly after the election. In that same election former Republican star Marc Wong narrowly defeated Steve Buck for County Clerk, but Wong was arrested for theft and forgery less than three months after that election and resigned immediately prior to pleading guilty in December 2003. Erickson was appointed County Clerk and served until a special election in November 2004 where he won the office in his own right in yet another battle with Buck.
The duties and responsibilities of the two offices require that the Clerk and Treasurer work together and Erickson and Davis have done that for two years now. Both have handled the administrative duties of their offices in a non-political manner and actually praise each other's office. So much so that both candidly admitted that more of their political challenges originate in their own parties than across parties. Davis has been forced to manage the counties threadbare treasury but at least she had ten years experience in the Treasurer's office while Erickson has had to learn a complicated and detailed job amidst a total reorganization of the county board and wholesale transformation of the county election system.
“It's been a very good experience and I have learned an awful lot about what is actually done in this office,” acknowledged Erickson. “I really had no idea of the full scope and details of the Clerk's office before I got here by I must thank my great staff for all they have done to help me learn the job. There's always new stuff that keeps coming up but I think I have developed a pretty good grasp of the office now.”
It could be argued that administrative offices like the Clerk and Treasurer or Sheriff shouldn't be political. They present daunting challenges and precious little time for learning when an outsider like Erickson wins one of these posts. In many ways her decade working under former Treasurer Carolyn Griffith prepared Davis for her job but Davis herself cautions that even she underestimated how much she would have to learn or just how political an administrative office can become. “When I was elected I knew pretty well how the Treasurer's office worked day-to-day but I had no idea what to expect politically. I was forced to learn the political aspects of this job on-the-job and I have the cuts and bruises to prove it.”
Brining fiscal order and responsibility to perpetually cash-strapped Knox County was a tall order and not one that Davis could accomplish on her own. She campaigned on a promise to implement zero-based budgeting but she knew well enough that ultimately the Knox County Board and not the Treasurer set the budget and established spending priorities. The numbers show Davis to be working in the right direction. Knox County finished fiscal year 2002 (immediately prior to Davis assuming office) with a budget shortfall of $3.454 million but two years later concluded fiscal year 2004 $1.2 million to the good. Davis expects to finish the present budget year in the black but by a much smaller margin-- but she has very real concerns about next year's county budget. “I took it upon myself to more aggressively present financial data to the County Board and I really believe that Knox County is today more fiscally responsible than when I took office. Most of the credit for that has to go to the County Board but I'd like to think my office has played an important role. We're not out of the woods by any means and we will need to carefully monitor both income and revenues during the next year; property tax income will be lower due to declining equalized assessed property values and a capped general fund tax rate.”
Property taxes are another area of mutual shared experience between Davis and Erickson. The last few years have seen one crisis after another cause confusion and delays in preparing property tax bills. By state statute all of the property tax supported bodies must submit their tax levy (total amount of tax money requested) to the Clerk's office. Meanwhile the Supervisor of Assessments must submit final equalized assessed property values so the Clerk can calculate property tax extensions. In essence, the Clerk's office divides the levy amount by the relevant total assessed property values to determine a tax rate for each tax-funded body. Next these rates and the property values for every parcel in the county are sent to the Treasurer's office where tax bills are calculated, printed and mailed to county property owners.
Before either Davis or Erickson were elected their predecessors and Knox County Supervisor of Assessments Joyce Skinner opted to purchase brand new tax software that never worked right and resulted in numerous problems and delays, particularly in tax bills mailed in the Summer of 2004 and the collection of those receipts. This past summer was nearly a repeat of that infamous year but fortunately tax bills just barely got out on time. There are already rumblings that new software delays related to the new GIS integration may result in delays next spring. These past problems have caused many headaches for Knox County officials and unnecessary expense for the tax bodies and neither Davis nor Erickson wants to see this crop up again next Spring or Summer. “Our two offices have taken a lot of political heat for problems that originated elsewhere we do not want to see that repeated,” noted Davis.
Another political hot potato that affects both the Clerk and Treasurer's offices is the issue of a county administrator. During budget discussions the Knox County Board declined to renew county administrator Alan Hallberg's contract for the next fiscal year. County Board Chair Jan Occhi has already said that when Hallberg leaves at the end of November his duties will be split between other officials. This change will directly impact on the Clerk's office but Erickson isn't worried. “I think the transition will go much smoother than most anticipate just as the new committee of the whole system has actually worked much better than the former County Board structure.” And Davis sees the immediate savings from eliminating Hallberg's salary as a necessary case of fiscal responsibility. “On a cost-benefit basis for Knox County this was an obvious and prudent move by the County Board.”
During their first terms in office both Davis and Erickson point to improved customer service and convenience, better space efficiency and cost effective operations as evidence that both offices are running smoothly. Anecdotal comments from those patronizing the courthouse would tend to support this assertion. While few of us look forward to conducting Courthouse business but at least fewer of us dread it quite so much. Both officials are operating on the apparently realistic assumption that even if they were challenged for re-election that the voters would conclude “if it ain't broke it doesn't need fixing.”