ELLSWORTH, Maine — Hancock County officials have decided to create an appointed financial manager position and to make the now-vacant county treasurer seat a part-time post.
The new position, according to published descriptions of the job, “will oversee the county’s computerized financial system, assist in the budgeting process and monitor investments.” The position will report to the three-seat board of elected county commissioners, not to the county treasurer.
Three years ago voters in Hancock County, by an approximate 2-to-1 ratio, rejected a proposal to make the county treasurer seat an appointed position rather than an elected one. The approximate vote results were 6,000 people for the measure and 12,000 against it.
Percy “Joe” Brown, Hancock County commissioner, said last week that the new position will not assume any of the statutory duties of the county treasurer position that is laid out in state law. The purpose of creating the full-time financial manager position, along with its experience requirements, is to make sure the county is getting the fiscal expertise it needs to manage the county’s increasingly complex finances, he said. Unlike the position of sheriff, whoever is elected county treasurer is not required to have prior experience.
“We’re moving in a different world today with financial matters,” Brown said. “You really have to be a financial wizard to run a financial department in government. That has to be done by a professional.”
Brown said state law does not indicate whether a county treasurer position has to be full- or part-time. It all depends on how many hours a treasurer is willing to work, what his or her abilities and additional assigned duties are, and whether the county commissioners are willing to pay the treasurer accordingly, he said.
In separate interviews, Hancock County commissioners said the statutory duties of the county treasurer are to receive and account for revenue, to pay and account for bills, and to assure there is an external audit of the county’s finances each year. Out of Maine’s 16 counties, 14 have part-time treasurers and full-time financial manager positions, they said.
The Hancock County treasurer position has been a part-time position in recent memory, commissioners said. They disagreed on how recently the position was part-time. Fay Lawson said it was in this decade, but Ken Shea said it was in the 1990s.
The impetus for creating the financial manager position was the death last month of Sally Crowley, who first was elected county treasurer in 2002 and then re-elected in 2006. Crowley, who died from cancer, had extensive financial management experience, having worked as town manager in Gouldsboro, Machias and Winter Harbor before moving into county government.
Shea, who decided not to seek re-election earlier this month, said Monday he was worried that whoever is appointed to fill the rest of Crowley’s unfinished term, which expires in 2010, would not have any prior experience. Because Crowley was a Democrat, state law requires that her replacement be nominated by the county Democratic committee and then appointed by Gov. John Baldacci. The county commissioners have no control over the process.
“It’s too critical a position and requires too many skills,” he said. “I wasn’t willing to take that chance.”
Shea spoke about the issue before the Hancock County Democratic Committee announced Tuesday that it had unanimously nominated Ellsworth resident Cathy Planchart, who works as community relations officer for Bar Harbor Bank & Trust, to fill out the rest of Crowley’s term.
Shea later said he has heard good things about Planchart.
“That is a good choice because she has a background in finance,” Shea said. “She should be a good fit.”
Planchart said Tuesday she has no problem with the treasurer position being a part-time post. She intends to continue working with Bar Harbor Bank & Trust, she said, and would not be able to accept the appointment if it were not part-time. She has been told the treasurer position will require eight to 10 hours of her time each week.
Planchart said she has worked for banks for 20 years and has also has worked for nonprofit groups in Hancock County. She has no previous government experience but thought the treasurer’s position would be interesting.
“This is definitely new territory for me,” Planchart said. “I’m all for collaborating and being part of a team.”
She said she is not sure how soon Baldacci might consider her nomination and make an appointment.
Commissioners said that ultimately they are responsible for the county’s finances. If a difference of opinion were to arise among elected county officials about how to best manage the county’s finances, they each said, those differences likely would be resolved through further discussion among those officials as they have been in the past.
They also each emphasized that the personnel move respects the wishes of county residents, whose votes in 2005 can be interpreted as a desire to have a direct voice in who manages the county’s finances. The creation of the financial manager position is not aimed at disenfranchising voters, they said.
“That wasn’t it at all,” Lawson said. “We wanted to have people more qualified in the position.”
“[Voters] still will be able to control who they put in that office,” Brown said. “The treasurer will oversee the county’s money.”
In the meantime, Hancock County Deputy Treasurer Renee Atwater is filling Crowley’s former post on an interim basis until the governor approves Crowley’s replacement. According to Shea, the county hopes to have a new financial manager in place before the new budget takes effect Jan. 1.
“We’re going to try to do it this [next] month,” he said.