by Mike Kroll
Triangular symmetry seems to characterize this primary election cycle. We have three candidates vying for governor on both the Democratic and Republican tickets; each Knox County Board district will now elect three rather than five representatives apiece; and three candidates are competing for the Democratic ballot slot for Knox County Treasurer. They are three very different candidates with but one goal in common: Lomac Payton, Gayle Keiser and Robin Davis each want to succeed retiring incumbent Carolyn Griffith as Treasurer.
Two of the three have political experience. Payton is best known as the most senior member of the Knox County Board and a former chair. He owns his own upholstery business and is giving up his county board seat to make this run. Keiser currently teaches part-time at Monmouth College and until last year operated her own retail business, the Prairie Peacock on South Seminary Street. She, like Payton, has chosen to give up her seat on the county board to make a second run for Treasurer.
Davis is making her first foray into politics after spending the last ten years working in the accounting department of the Treasurers office. Before that she worked for the former Fidelity Federal Savings & Loan (now First Bank) and later as the chief accountant for the shuttered thrift. Payton will point to 30 years on the county board and a lifetime of involvement in numerous civic and service groups. Keiser and Davis point to their educational experience as setting them apart. The former holds a PhD in Political Science while the latter has a bachelor of science in Business Finance.
By Illinois statute, the Treasurer is responsible for collecting property taxes and dispersing the revenues among the taxing bodies. The County Treasurer is also responsible for the safe keeping and investment of county funds and maintains the countys books. The Treasurers office also handles the county payroll and, together with the County Clerk, is responsible for paying the countys bills. Knox Countys financial condition is anything but rosy with revenues barely covering expenses, too little financial cushion in the bank, and a county board apparently unwilling or unable to make hard financial choices.
Under these circumstances why would anyone want to be County Treasurer?
"I want to continue serving the citizens of Knox County," explains Payton. "I guess Im kind of burnt out on the county board and Ive been considering a run for treasurer for some time. I have more direct experience with Knox County government than any of the candidates for Treasurer and I understand the money problems facing this county."
Keiser sees a need to expand the role of the Treasurer into one of fiscal leadership. "I think the primary issue in this race is leadership. As Treasurer I am going to be proactive in safeguarding the financial interests of Knox County taxpayers. Much like Don Moffitt did while he was treasurer, Ill provide fiscal leadership to the county so we can avoid the feast or famine cycle that has been whirling us around."
The political newcomer not surprisingly sees the Treasurers role as essentially administrative rather than political. "As important as the management of Knox Countys monies are today, it is too bad that we must elect a Treasurer rather than hiring the most qualified financial administrator. Im running for a political office that I would be most qualified for if it werent political but rather selected based on merit. I offer the voters an opportunity to hire a trained and experienced manager for the countys funds. I am the only candidate that actually has firsthand experience working in this office and I have no higher political aspirations than to continue serving as treasurer."
Payton acknowledges that he would have a lot to learn about the day-to-day aspects of the Treasurers office. "Id like to become very involved in all aspects of the office. One of my goals would be to cross train all of the office employees including myself! I believe my experience as a county board member gives me a different viewpoint. I know about the tough decisions the county board needs to make and how important good financial information is. I will provide figures that accurately reflect the countys current financial position at all county board meetings and work with board members to make sure they understand those numbers."
"Ill actively present the overall fiscal picture to the county board and encourage members to view their decisions in light of the countys bottom line," said Keiser. "I watched the bottom line of my business like an eagle for over 12 years and that will be my concern as the chief fiscal officer of the county. It comes back to the county board keeping a handle on spending. Many current members of the board are not running for re-election, which means there is going to be a lot of change. The new board is going to need a lot of support and advice from the treasurer."
"I will provide a comprehensive balance sheet to the county board," continued Keiser. "I dont think the county board members have been provided with an adequate picture of the countys overall financial position. Beyond Carolyn Griffiths role as Treasurer, Ill be a comptroller for the county. My office will carry out active fiscal oversight, by which I mean scrutinizing and comparing expenditures to budgets and making public reports on county finances. This kind of oversight hasnt been done much in the past ten years. I dont say this as a criticism of Carolyn. She brought her strengths to the office after working of Don Moffitt in the office as chief deputy. With my ten year background as a county board member I bring different strengths."
Davis doesnt want to be as proactive with the county board as either Payton or Keiser. "As treasurer, it wouldnt be my role to tell the county board how to spend money. The Treasurers job is to collect the monies owed the county, invest those monies wisely and keep meticulous books. The treasurer should play a bigger role in the countys budget process not by making decisions on where to spend money or what to cut but by keeping county board members and officials well informed of the countys financial status. I would educate board members about Knox Countys financial status and options so they can make better decisions."
Payton agrees that more and better financial information will help the County Board make better decisions. He also thinks some of the office's current functions could be improved. "For the last couple of years we havent gotten the property tax bills out on time. There have been lots of excuses and finger pointing but the bottom line is that this is the treasurers responsibility. I will do whatever it takes to get the bills out on time so Knox County can begin collecting tax dollars as soon as possible."
Payton also believes that Knox County should be receiving a greater return on its investments. "I would re-examine the countys current investment programs. It seems to me that during the period of financial prosperity, Knox County should have benefited a bit more from our investments."
"I think that investments need to be looked at closely," notes Keiser. "I dont believe Knox County has reaped the level of return one might have expected. The City of Galesburg has apparently done quite well with its investments while Knox County doesnt appear to have much to show as investment income. "
Davis has overseen the countys investments In her current role under Treasurer Carolyn Griffith and points out that the realities of Knox County's precarious financial health make it difficult to be much more aggressive with investments. "Whereas Galesburg literally has tens of millions of dollars to invest much of which need not be kept liquid Knox County accounts are far more modest. It has only been in the last couple of years that Knox County literally didnt run out of money before new tax receipts came in and was required to borrow against future taxes. We need to keep most of the countys money as liquid as possible and, of course; we only invest in totally safe bonds. Both of these factors reduce the potential earnings."
Davis sees her focus on improving the day-to-day operations of the treasurers office. "I think it is important that we continue to upgrade the computers and software necessary to run this office. In the past it has been necessary for us to lurch from crisis to crisis because too little attention was focused on anticipating the ongoing needs of the office. It is also important that this office continue in close proximity with the County Clerks office. The two county offices work hand-in-hand on so many matters that it would be sheer folly to physically split us apart. I would also like to explore ways to make it more convenient for property owners to pay their taxes. One possibility worth investigating is allowing citizens to pay property taxes by credit card."
"The Treasurers office, Clerks office, Recorders office and the Supervisor of Assessments should be located in the same building," insists Payton. "This is necessary not only to permit the county employees in each of these offices to be most productive but also to provide the most convenient service to the citizens of Knox County. If it becomes necessary to move these offices, they should be moved together."
Keiser wants to see Knox County establish a rainy day fund, "we need a healthy surplus of three to six months operating reserve to carry the county through a shortfall. As my contribution to such a reserve, Ill hold my salary at the same level as when I take office. Any future salary increases will be returned to the countys general fund until the county is enjoying more fiscal stability. I believe my strengths are necessary as the County Board goes through a dramatic change of membership and cutback in size. A proactive treasurer and well-informed county board are the keys to getting the county beyond these challenging fiscal times to the point where we can do more fiscal planning in the future."
"I respect and understand the many difficulties facing the Knox County Board," says Davis. "County board members are elected to establish policy and set priorities for Knox County. As Treasurer I will be elected to properly administer the countys financial matters. It is not the treasurers job to say how money should be spent or not spent. I will assure the taxpayers of Knox County that my office will manage that money wisely while providing the county board with the best information possible to enable them to make informed decisions."