2016-10-27 / Life in Leelanau

First-term county treasurer faces county staff accountant

Leelanau County Treasurer

The office of Treasurer is authorized by the Michigan Constitution to serve as the chief financial officer of a county. The duties of the Leelanau County Treasurer include collecting delinquent property taxes; receiving, maintaining and investing all county monies; and processing forfeiture and foreclosure properties.

County treasurers are elected to four-year terms of office on the partisan ballot. The compensation for the Leelanau County Treasurer as set by the county Board of Commissioners varies between $60,033 and $65,760, depending upon years of county employment.

Leelanau County Treasurer John A. Gallagher III, a Republican, is being challenged by Jennifer Zywicki, chief staff accountant for the Leelanau County Clerk’s office. She is a Democrat.

Ms. Zywicki is a Glen Lake graduate with an associate’s degree in accounting from Northwestern Michigan College. She has worked for the county for a total of 15 years with the Road Commission and now in the Clerk’s office. She and her husband, Richard, own Cedar Hardware. They have two children attending Glen Lake Community Schools.

Mr. Gallagher graduated from Lake Leelanau St. Mary and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Ferris State University. He and his wife, Rose (Hahnenberg) Gallagher have four children.

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We posed three questions to the candidates, allowing up to 75 words for each response. Due to the complexity of question No. 1, neither candidate was able to hold to that limit. Their full responses are published below.

1. Bills have gone out to local governments for unpaid taxes, interest at 1 percent per month and penalties never paid by the BayView development. The county Delinquent Tax Revolving fund made the local governments whole years ago for property taxes owed. How much of the amount billed — closer to $1 million — should county demand be paid by local governments?

Gallagher: It was my original hope to take the charge-back to make the county whole with sales proceeds that I had in the Tax Foreclosure Fund (which had $670,000 of the $900,000). The balance of the $900,000 was going to be billed to the local units ($230,000). The goal was to sell the property to make the Tax Foreclosure Fund whole through the sale proceeds of the newly acquired property as the state statute was designed to be administered. Current legal opinion has allowed for the base tax of only $579,000 to be charged back instead of the original $900,000. By working collaboratively with all parties involved, I am fortunate to only charge the base tax ($579,000), instead of the entire $900,000.

Zywicki: I would have encouraged the Land Bank Authority to accept the properties, which would have negated the BayView charge-backs. If Land Bank was not a viable alternative, timely billing by the County Treasurer of the base tax would have resulted in zero interest to the local units. I would have communicated with the local units in an open forum with all elected and appointed Treasurers regarding the amounts to be owed. The County Treasurer has to follow State statute, and never should have attempted to write-off the BayView taxes, interest and penalties. This issue is not a “County” issue, as it is the sole function of the County Treasurer. The local units now must pay the County Treasurer what is billed to them.

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2. The county Treasurer’s office a few years back took control from the Equalization Department of the Principal Residence Exemption (PRE) program, which examines the validity of exemptions from property taxes. Which county office should be in charge?

Gallagher: Since the PRE function is an extension of tax administration, with billing and collection as the sole functions of the Treasurer’s office, it best serves Leelanau County citizens to have the Treasurer’s Office oversee PRE. The privilege of an elected official overseeing PRE compared to an appointed employee gives taxpayers an advocate rather than an adversary. I have worked hard to faithfully execute my duties while overseeing the PRE Audit Function, which has proven successful.

Zywicki: The ability for the Treasurer’s office to conduct PRE auditing is allowed by law, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. I will return the PRE auditing to the Equalization Department to increase the level of checks and balances. The Treasurer is not an assessor, nor a field agent, however the Treasurer can issue tax bills from successful audits and also collect those taxes.

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3. If you had an opportunity to explain one attribute that best qualifies you for the position of county treasurer, what would you say?

Gallagher: Integrity. When dealing with taxpayers’ money, holding high levels of honesty, transparency, and ethical principles, while following state statute is critical in ensuring the necessary support, responsible investments, and financial protection for our community. I am honored to use my education, training, and experience as an accountant and County Treasurer, to work hard for the community that has been there for our families throughout the years by ensuring a strong financial future for our County.

Zywicki: The comprehensive knowledge of the entire financial process of the County.

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