This story appeared in print in conjunction with “Interrupted Transmission.” One of the many questions surrounding the power lines project in south Columbia has been...
“How did you get involved in politics?” That’s a question I was often asked during my years as county treasurer, a career with lots of responsibility and fun as well as moments when I asked myself, “What’s going to happen next?”
My initiation to politics happened on the afternoon of April 9, 1976. I had been working in the county clerk’s office for about 10 years, and this was the day before the deadline for filing for county offices.
Murry Glascock, county clerk at the time, called me into his office, where John Rollins, a member of the state House of Representatives, joined him. In no uncertain terms, I was told that I was going to file for county treasurer the following day.
My first response was that I didn’t like politics. Besides, I was attending college with plans to eventually teach history and government to junior high students. I also was working full-time in the clerk’s office.
Murry quickly came back with, “You can make more money serving in the treasurer’s office than teaching school and have more time to spend with your two children.”
(That became a joke because, as I found out, when you are in a public office, you are expected to go to every dogfight in the county and give time and money to every charity, whether it’s a good cause or not.)
It was true that I would earn more money as treasurer — $12,000 compared with about $9,000 as a teacher. So it was a no-brainer: $3,000 more per year to help me raise my two children and finish college.
But before filing as a candidate the next day, I was given several directives. One was to get my hair cut (my photo would be taken), stop dressing like a student and start wearing a certain undergarment that females were burning back in late ’60s and early ’70s.
The second directive was to go talk with the county treasurer who was leaving office. My meeting with presiding Treasurer Maurice Dysart was interesting for sure. He told me that he just didn’t believe a woman could win an election for treasurer or could do the job if elected. Also, he said being divorced with two young children would not be in my favor during an election campaign.
Never mind. The following day I got my hair cut and dressed appropriately (including the missing piece of underwear), and Rep. John Rollins had a press release ready for me when I made my announcement to the media.
I won the election for a four-year term with 65 percent of the vote. Ellen Roper won probate judge the same year, and we were the only two women on the ballot. We each received around 22,000 votes. (I went on to win eight more elections, and every time I had opposition, I won by a 2-1 margin.)
I was sworn into office Jan. 1, 1977. Immediately following the ceremony, Dysart escorted me to my new office and gave me the keys. Then he proceeded to write out a check for $5 million. He told me to take the check to the bank the next day and open a new account for the county’s funds. The check was made out to me. I was floored that the changing-of-the-guard was handled this way. Needless to say, sleep did not come easily that night. (Today the total amount of cash handled by the treasurer is approximately $45 million for most of the year and as much as $150 million during tax collection periods.)
You might expect that being the county treasurer means receiving, disbursing and investing the county’s money. Well, let me tell you; it’s not always so cut and dried.
One of my first surprises came the day a tall, lanky highway patrolman walked into my office carrying a brown grocery sack. “OK,” I wondered. “Am I in trouble? What is he doing with a brown grocery sack? What’s inside?”
Then he began to explain. There were bundles of cash in the bag. It was money confiscated during a drug bust, and money obtained that way belongs to the county’s public school fund. He told me I was to count the money while he watched.
Now, if you’ve never been handed $30,000 in 20s and 10s, bills that are dirty and smelly and leave a sticky substance on your hands, you just haven’t lived.
So what astute questions did I ask? Why carry this much cash, and why carry it in a brown grocery bag? Well, he answered, that happened to be the bag that the officers who made the bust put the cash in, and there it had to stay until the case was settled and the cash was turned over to the treasurer in whatever county the bust was made.
But that’s not the craziest thing that happened to me while in office. That distinction goes to the day a nice woman from a mortuary came in and informed the staff at the front desk that they had a “body on ice” that was my problem.
The dead man had two living sons, she said, but they didn’t want to have anything to do with their dad. According to the rules, it was the responsibility of the county treasurer to take possession of the body and any property belonging to the deceased.
I laughed and thought, oh, she’s wrong.This responsibility must belong to the public administrator or the medical examiner. However, after a couple of calls, I was informed that there was a state statute passed in 1905 that gave this duty to the county treasurer.
So I‘m thinking: What do I do now? Then, low and behold, I got another body — the same day. The same woman from the same mortuary brought us possessions that were left on the deceased: a billfold and a very nice ring. The person had committed suicide. This time the family was prepared to take care of the body (Whew!), but his parents and children were arguing over who would get the ring. Thank goodness this was solved without any intervention from me — not that I had any idea what I was going to do otherwise.
As far as the “body on ice” went, Parker Funeral Home helped me by cremating the remains, and I had to take possession of the gentleman’s bank account and lock box. The bank account had $10,000 in it, and the lockbox had $100 in cash. So we paid for the burial, and the county received the rest of the funds. Needless to say, I got that law changed, and now the public administrator takes care of these kinds of cases.
As for more routine matters, in my 33 years as treasurer, I used more than three different accounting systems mandated by state statutes.
I started out keeping track of the county budget and cash ledger by hand. Then I used an NCR double-entry bookkeeping system. In the early 1980s we started using computers, and that made the accounting process easier because I could stop writing the tracking of receipts and expenditures by hand.
My first year in office I learned that the budget was out of balance. The options were to borrow money or cut the budget.
Looking at the previous treasurer’s cash records, I saw that the county had already borrowed $700,000 and would be another $400,000 short if the budget were spent in full. The actual cash in the general fund was never compared with the total amount budgeted in any given year. So I proceeded to try to explain to the clerk (the budget officer at the time) and the county commissioners (called county court judges at the time) that you cannot spend what you don’t have. We then started balancing the general revenue cash with the clerk’s budgeted numbers.
In the mid-’80s, the interest rate that banks were earning was 16 percent. The county was tied to a contract that stipulated the rate we could earn on our investments, and it was nowhere near 16 percent. Chris Kelly, who was county clerk at the time, went with me to Boone County National Bank, where county deposits were made, to talk with folks about raising the interest the county could earn on investments. We reached an agreement to change the contract as long as I would handle the investments.
That was the start of my investment experience. I developed a spreadsheet and tracked the daily balance of 16 funds.
I feel I have kept the county treasurer’s office on the cutting edge in county finances during the past four decades and dealt appropriately with whatever surprises came through the door — be they bags of cash or body bags.