10/02/16: Eliminate the Norfolk treasurer’s office

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

Norfolk has a great opportunity to reduce its expenses and return some accountability to its taxpayers: It should eliminate the treasurer’s office.

The current occupant of the office, Anthony Burfoot, has been indicted on federal charges that he accepted almost half a million dollars in bribes. Builder Ronnie Boone Sr. has said that he bribed Burfoot when Burfoot was treasurer and a member of the City Council.

The treasurer’s office is one of five offices described in the Virginia constitution. (Full disclosure: I ran in 2005 for Norfolk city treasurer, finishing second in a four-candidate race won by Tom Moss.)

The first mention I could find of a city or county treasurer is in the 1870 revision of the state constitution; the other four offices — court clerk, commonwealth’s attorney, sheriff and commissioner of the revenue — appeared in earlier versions. The people who serve in these offices are elected to four-year terms, with the exception of the court clerk, who serves for eight years.

In very simple terms, the treasurer collects taxes. The assessment of the taxes is the function of another office: In Norfolk, real estate taxes are assessed by the real estate assessor, while personal property taxes are assessed by the commissioner of the revenue. When the taxes are paid, the payment is sent to the treasurer. In accounting terms, we call this a separation of duties, and it’s a desirable situation. I’ve no doubt this was the reason treasurers were added to the mix.

I also have no doubt that the city and county governments in 1870 simply did not have the infrastructure in place. Having these constitutional offices made sense. Electing these officials — previously, they were appointed — made sense. Government closest to the people governs best.

But then we had the Byrd Machine, which controlled Virginia politics for more than 40 years, primarily through the network of constitutional offices.

And except for the annual personal property tax bill and, if you pay them directly, the quarterly real estate tax bills, the only contact a Norfolk resident has with the treasurer’s office is the name on the ballot every four years.

Norfolk local government today is nothing like it was in 1870. It has a department of finance, which, according to the 2017 budget, costs us $4.4 million, with nearly 50 employees. In addition, it expects to spend another $2.4 million on the treasurer’s office, which has 31 employees.

Some of the costs of operating the treasurer’s office are reimbursed by the state. At last look, funding for constitutional offices was the third largest local aid program in the state’s budget.

It is no surprise, then, that in its efforts to streamline state government, almost every reform commission report since 1990 has recommended doing something about constitutional offices. The boldest act came from then-Gov. Tim Kaine, whose final budget proposal essentially eliminated the offices of treasurer and commissioner of revenue, with those duties being assumed by the director of finance. Kaine’s proposal, like the recommendations of the various reform commissions, went nowhere.

Virginia code section 24.2-685 provides us with a solution: A referendum can be held to abolish the treasurer’s office. Such a referendum requires petition signatures of qualified voters equal to 20 percent of the total votes cast in the city for the most recent presidential election. Petition organizers have 90 days to gather the signatures. The referendum would then be placed on the ballot at the next general election for City Council members. For Norfolk, that would mean it would be 2018 before we could vote to eliminate the treasurer.

If some of this sounds familiar, it is because I first proposed the elimination of some constitutional offices in these pages in 2010. Norfolk was reeling from revelations in the commonwealth’s attorney, treasurer and commissioner of the revenue offices. Six years later, our current treasurer is under indictment.

But that shouldn’t be the reason we eliminate the office. We should do it because it makes sound financial sense.

Democrats and Republicans alike should want to see our city spend resources wisely. Our City Council should lead the charge on this.

That the path is neither easy nor quick should not deter us.