Having a committee oversee investment decisions in the Douglas County TreasurerÃ¢ÂÂs Office is a good start, but it shouldnÃ¢ÂÂt stop there, a former assistant county treasurer said.
Sharon Englebrecht, fired Nov. 1 by Treasurer Pat Wells, said county commissioners should push to widen their control over the countyÃ¢ÂÂs investment officer.
Ã¢ÂÂI think they need to watch her even harder,Ã¢ÂÂ Englebrecht said. Ã¢ÂÂI think sheÃ¢ÂÂs a loose cannon.Ã¢ÂÂ
Wells, using her prerogative afforded in state law, fired Englebrecht shortly after 11 a.m. Nov. 1, effective at noon that day. Wells offered no specific reason at the time, nor has she given one since.
Asked following a recent commission meeting for her accounting of the firing, Wells strayed briefly from her initial refusal to comment.
Ã¢ÂÂWe had a difference of opinion,Ã¢ÂÂ she said.
Craig Weinaug, county administrator, said it was his understanding that the firing did not involve mismanagement, misplacement or misappropriation of county funds.
Ã¢ÂÂThereÃ¢ÂÂs no hint of anything improper or illegal or anything like that,Ã¢ÂÂ Weinaug said. Ã¢ÂÂI would either hire her myself or recommend her to another department. I donÃ¢ÂÂt know what more I could say.Ã¢ÂÂ
Such a firing is specifically permitted under state law, Weinaug said, because Wells, as an elected official, is permitted to hire one deputy whose professional standing is not subject to the same rules and regulations that cover the countyÃ¢ÂÂs regular employees, such as sheriffÃ¢ÂÂs deputies, equipment operators or clerks in the treasurerÃ¢ÂÂs office.
Englebrecht, for her part, said that sheÃ¢ÂÂd had her annual review only two days before being fired. The deputy had received a raise to $52,000 a year.
Ã¢ÂÂEverything was fine,Ã¢ÂÂ she said.
A few years ago, Englebrecht said, Wells Ã¢ÂÂgot defensiveÃ¢ÂÂ after Englebrecht questioned her boss about a handful of investment decisions. The financial issues later surfaced during an audit that found the treasurerÃ¢ÂÂs office had allowed up to $2.8 million in idle funds to be left unsecured, in violation of state law.
County commissioners soon formed an Investment Advisory Committee to come up with a policy for managing investments. The groupÃ¢ÂÂs report outlines more specific controls for how and when the treasurer should invest the countyÃ¢ÂÂs money, and administrators are preparing to put its plans into action.
Ã¢ÂÂNobody could ever tell you that that would never happen again,Ã¢ÂÂ Weinaug said. Ã¢ÂÂAll you can do is take action and put management controls in place to try to prevent it from happening again.Ã¢ÂÂ
Commissioners intend to keep the committee in the loop, in position to keep a watchful eye over the financial workings of a fund that can swell to more than $30 million when property-tax payments start pouring in.
Ã¢ÂÂItÃ¢ÂÂs just a glorified checks-and-balances system,Ã¢ÂÂ said Jere McElhaney, commission chairman.
Such Ã¢ÂÂreasonable oversightÃ¢ÂÂ comes as the county prepares to make do with less money next year, Weinaug said. The county is expected to lose $1.8 million in 2003 after Gov. Bill Graves ordered that cities and counties share the financial burden of the stateÃ¢ÂÂs deepening budget crisis.
Weinaug doesnÃ¢ÂÂt expect the policy to pay off much financially - waiting a couple days to invest $1 million may amount to a loss of only $100 in interest, he said - but everything adds up.
This year the county expects to earn $300,000 in interest income, a sharp drop from the more than $1 million generated by higher interest rates during the marketÃ¢ÂÂs strength in 2001 but still a valuable asset worth diligent monitoring.
Ã¢ÂÂThe difference between a well-managed investment program and a poorly managed investment program, with interest rates as low as they are, probably only amounts to a few thousand dollars a year, or at most tens of thousands of dollars a year,Ã¢ÂÂ Weinaug said. Ã¢ÂÂIs that important? Yes, that is important. Ã¢ÂÂ:
Ã¢ÂÂThis will provide accountability - and a means to correct problems early, rather than letting them go for a significant period of time. It will also provide a means for the county commission to determine if the management of the investments by the treasurer are being done well. And if they are not, it provides them with a basis for considering whether the investments ought to be handled a different way.Ã¢ÂÂ
Englebrecht hopes itÃ¢ÂÂs enough.
Ã¢ÂÂShe wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt take my advisement on things,Ã¢ÂÂ said Englebrecht, who spent 35 years as a banker in Lawrence. Ã¢ÂÂThere were several times she could have invested money, but she waited two or three days - that cost us money. She wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt listen to me.Ã¢ÂÂ
Wells said she had appointed Cindy Monshizadeh, a current employee in the treasurerÃ¢ÂÂs office, as interim deputy treasurer.