Sauter sees no trouble in treasurer's office

A phrase that recurs frequently in the conversation of Island County Treasurer Maxine Sauter is “checks and balances,” an assertion that she claims characterizes the tight financial controls in her office.

Sauter, the Republican incumbent, currently is locked in a tight and hotly contested race for re-election against Democratic hopeful Linda Riffe, an administrator in Oak Harbor School District.

Riffe has blasted Sauter for a series of Washington State Auditor reports citing poor financial controls in how the county treasurer handles taxpayer funds.

“Where is she getting this from?” Sauter asked Tuesday, referring to Riffe’s charges of poor practices in the treasurer’s office. “I have never been faced with such inappropriate and false statements, ever. She’s lying, everything she says. There’s no money lying around.”

Certainly, for the past several years, the county has received warnings from the state about the lack of accepted controls in how the treasurer handles county funds. However, Sauter repeatedly claimed that no money has ever gone missing since she took office in 1985, and that the state auditor doesn’t understand the specific requirements of handling money in a smaller jurisdiction.

“I’ve been around a lot longer than the state auditor has,” Sauter said, adding that it is the auditor’s office that needs “a lot of adjustments” to bring itself up to date.

Sauter also said that she has indeed made a number of changes in her office according to the auditor’s recommendations. Soon, she said, there will be a new computer system that will provide printed receipts for all transactions. Still, despite the auditor’s reports, Sauter said she refuses to go against her beliefs in how best to run the office.

“In many ways, I’ve adjusted,” she said. “Where I will adjust is when I think it has the appropriate checks and balances that I need. Otherwise, I’m totally responsible.”

Still, Sauter dismisses the severity of the auditor’s findings. “The auditor’s findings are not serious,”she said.“There is no problem whatsoever in the treasurer’s office. It is functioning very accurately and appropriately.” Here she repeats a phrase that has become a mantra for her current campaign: “Not one penny has ever been misplaced, misappropriated or unaccounted for.”

As for the audit controversy, Sauter added that “this has been going on for many, many years. There is no issue. As soon as I feel secure with their requests, I will abide by everything that they (the state auditor) want.”

Characterizing her concern over how money is handled as extremely strict, Sauter said she has instituted during her tenure a careful system of accountability in the transference of funds. “I’ve installed the most updated check and balance system in the state, and I guarantee that,” she said.

Riffe has also challenged Sauter’s claim that she has made the county a bundle of money through investments, saying that the treasurer is bound by statute to invest only through the state-sanctioned Risk Pool. Sauter, however, said she is free to invest in local banks at her discretion, and by doing so she has kept the county afloat during the recent budget crisis. She said she has never invested in the stock market.

“I do whatever I want,” Sauter said, adding that she regularly invests in four local banks, including Pacific Northwest and Whidbey Island Bank. “I have the highest income interest in the state. I’m totally responsible.”

Sauter points to her extensive experience as a financial manager on Wall Street as being partly responsible for her good record on earnings. Over a five year period, she said her investment income for the county has been in excess of $22 million. She also cites the county’s high rate of property tax collection — about 99.4 percent — as another indicator of her success as treasurer.

“I’ve made a lot of money, and held down costs,” she said. “We’re the only department in the county with no increase in budget costs.”

Part of these saving Sauter attributes to the fact that her office has fewer employees than it did when she took over 16 years ago. Ironically, it is this very point that some have interpreted as a too high rate of turnover and that has caused Riffe to question Sauter’s leadership abilities.

Sauter said she feels the data itself on this issue have been seriously misinterpreted and misrepresented.

“The changeover in personnel should be interpreted appropriately,” Sauter said. “Several employees retired, and some were requested to leave due to inability and non-compliance requirements.”

Though Sauter expresses shock over what she deems the undue controversy surrounding the treasurer’s race, she maintains that she is ready, willing and able to serve. She said that her ability to earn and manage money is crucial to the county in light of the current budget shortfalls.

“The county needs my expertise in cash flow and investment, and I take credit for keeping their revenues high,” Sauter argued. “It’s something that comes easily to me. I’m very confident I have done everything to keep this county safe and secure, with the best accounting principals possible,” she added.

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