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The Ravalli County commissioners have voiced serious concerns about the performance of the new county treasurer and are taking steps to try to fix those problems.

Treasurer Mary Hudson-Smith has not reconciled the county operating accounts for the month of December.

Because the books aren't balanced, Hudson-Smith hasn't been able to send the county's disbursements to the Montana Department of Justice and the Department of Revenue, which are due on the 20th of each month.

Until the December books are balanced, the county also hasn't been able to distribute money to cities, towns, schools or any other agencies the county is in charge of collecting money for.

Klarryse Murphy, Ravalli County's chief financial officer, told commissioners she has fielded phone calls from representatives of every school district voicing concerns over their money.

"I'm trying to decipher how the accounting was done for disbursements and deposits and all that for month end. I'm just totally stumped to how that has been done in the past," Hudson-Smith said.

Commissioners are also worried because Hudson-Smith has failed to transfer funds from the county's operating account to an investment account that earns more than double the interest.

The county is required to keep an operating account with a minimum of $3 million at First Interstate Bank, as per a contract with the bank. In the past, excess funds have been moved over to an account with the Royal Bank of Canada, which earns higher interest.

"We are sitting with more than what we need to have and not earning as much interest as we could," said comptroller Jana Exner. The operating account at First Interstate currently has just over $5 million and is earning about 0.1 percent interest. The Royal Bank of Canada money market account, on the other hand, earns approximately 2.5 percent interest.

"It is a serious concern of the commission," said J.R. Iman, commission chair.

Hudson-Smith argued that she hasn't received any formal training since taking office.

"There's been no training," she said. "It's a challenge learning the job, and that's where we're having the problem, because it'll take time.

"I think (the commissioners) thought I would just come in and know exactly what I'm supposed to be doing," Hudson-Smith continued. "And I don't think that's possible for any treasurer unless they've been a treasurer before."

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At a meeting with Hudson-Smith, the commissioners formed a committee with Suzy Foss and Ron Stoltz to have daily interaction with Hudson-Smith.

They also are requiring a weekly meeting and a written report from Hudson-Smith, starting in two weeks when the board returns from a Montana Association of Counties conference in Helena.

"We found out the treasurer didn't understand her job," Stoltz said. "I'm starting a punch list. I'll be down every day to talk to her to find out where we are on that list."

The treasurer's department, with assistance from state law and other resources, will come up with departmental procedures, said Commissioner Greg Chilcott.

"Policies and procedures in every department need to be in place, for any public office," Iman added.

Foss noted that policy will help the county down the road, "so no future transitions are this painful."

Hudson-Smith said those procedures will help her greatly in her new position.

"I suggested at our prior meeting that there were no actual policies or payment schedules," she said, continuing to say she would like schedules in order to disburse funds in a timely manner.

The treasurer is responsible for about 200 trust and agency funds that include 70 outside districts, such as school, fire, irrigation, library and cemetery districts. The treasurer's office receives an average of $10 million a month.

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This issue became apparent last week when Hudson-Smith requested hiring a tax clerk at a higher pay scale because of her lengthy experience.

Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher said at a meeting last week, Hudson-Smith made it clear from their conversation that this person was being hired to train Hudson-Smith as well as her deputy treasurer.

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This week, however, Hudson-Smith denied that sentiment.

"She can help me and support me because she's gone through it," Hudson-Smith said. "We don't have just one but we have two tax clerks starting in the office. She can train the new clerk, so it frees me up from having to train her so I can learn my job. And for the month of January, we've been scrambling trying to get some personnel in here."

At a meeting Tuesday with Hudson-Smith, Kanenwisher also questioned how the new hire will have comprehensive knowledge of the department's statutory duties if Hudson-Smith doesn't herself.

"Do you know what you don't know?" Kanenwisher asked Hudson-Smith. "How do you know she knows those things?"

"I don't think anybody could fill in those gaps," Hudson-Smith replied.

Foss suggested Hudson-Smith contact other county treasurers around the state for guidance.

"Going to someone who is subordinate to you is less likely to deliver those results," Foss told her.

In a roundabout attempt to see if Hudson-Smith felt she was still qualified for the position a month in, Kanenwisher told her, "you have to give this really serious thought," to which she replied, "This is something I can do."

"Getting personnel is going to help," Chilcott said, adding that procedures including daily, monthly and annual duties need to be captured in policy.

Hudson-Smith, who has been a clerk in the department for 16 years, was elected in a November election that saw a Republican sweep of the county. She replaced JoAnne Johnson, who had been county treasurer for eight years.

Reporter Whitney Bermes can be reached at 363-3300 or whitney.bermes@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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