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Archive for Sunday, December 1, 2002

Fired assistant treasurer urges greater oversight

December 1, 2002

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Having a committee oversee investment decisions in the Douglas County TreasurerâÂÂs Office is a good start, but it shouldnâÂÂt 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 countyâÂÂs investment officer.

âÂÂI think they need to watch her even harder,â Englebrecht said. âÂÂI think sheâÂÂs a loose cannon.âÂÂ

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.

âÂÂWe had a difference of opinion,â she said.

Craig Weinaug, county administrator, said it was his understanding that the firing did not involve mismanagement, misplacement or misappropriation of county funds.

âÂÂThereâÂÂs no hint of anything improper or illegal or anything like that,â Weinaug said. âÂÂI would either hire her myself or recommend her to another department. I donâÂÂt know what more I could say.âÂÂ

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 countyâÂÂs regular employees, such as sheriffâÂÂs deputies, equipment operators or clerks in the treasurerâÂÂs office.

Englebrecht, for her part, said that sheâÂÂd had her annual review only two days before being fired. The deputy had received a raise to $52,000 a year.

âÂÂEverything was fine,â she said.

A few years ago, Englebrecht said, Wells âÂÂgot defensiveâ after Englebrecht questioned her boss about a handful of investment decisions. The financial issues later surfaced during an audit that found the treasurerâÂÂs office had allowed up to $2.8 million in idle funds to be left unsecured, in violation of state law.

Preventive measures

County commissioners soon formed an Investment Advisory Committee to come up with a policy for managing investments. The groupâÂÂs report outlines more specific controls for how and when the treasurer should invest the countyâÂÂs money, and administrators are preparing to put its plans into action.

âÂÂNobody could ever tell you that that would never happen again,â Weinaug said. âÂÂAll you can do is take action and put management controls in place to try to prevent it from happening again.âÂÂ

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.

âÂÂItâÂÂs just a glorified checks-and-balances system,â said Jere McElhaney, commission chairman.

Such âÂÂreasonable oversightâ 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 stateâÂÂs deepening budget crisis.

Weinaug doesnâÂÂt 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 marketâÂÂs strength in 2001 but still a valuable asset worth diligent monitoring.

Management options

âÂÂThe 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,â Weinaug said. âÂÂIs that important? Yes, that is important. âÂÂ:

âÂÂThis 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.âÂÂ

Englebrecht hopes itâÂÂs enough.

âÂÂShe wouldnâÂÂt take my advisement on things,â said Englebrecht, who spent 35 years as a banker in Lawrence. âÂÂThere were several times she could have invested money, but she waited two or three days - that cost us money. She wouldnâÂÂt listen to me.âÂÂ

Wells said she had appointed Cindy Monshizadeh, a current employee in the treasurerâÂÂs office, as interim deputy treasurer.

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