When it comes to Barton County Treasurer Kevin Wondra, it boils down to a matter of trust, or the lack of it, County Commissioners said Monday morning.
The embattled Wondra again came under fire following the publication of a story in the Great Bend Tribune Sunday outlining the impact of a belated $1.9 million tax distribution. And, again, he defended his actions and those of his staff.
However, commissioners felt that, either intentionally or unintentionally, they had been misled.
“How do we know what you tell us is the truth?” asked Commissioner Don Davis. “I am disappointed in how you operate.”
He wondered if there was someone else in the Treasurer’s Office that could serve as a spokesperson, “someone with more integrity.”
Perhaps, Davis said, Barton County should follow an example from Reno County after controversy there. Reno County officials reduced the pay for the treasurer.
“I didn’t intentionally mislead you,” Wondra said. He said any misunderstandings were the result of a lack of communication between him and his staff, the challenges from a software conversion and the office’s hectic workload.
“Now, my main focus is on getting tax statements out,” he said. These go out to all the property owners in the county who have to pay their property taxes by Dec. 20 and many owners have yet to receive their tax bills.
The epicenter of the most recent problem with the Treasurer’s Office was the failure to distribute $1.9 million in tax money from May that should have been distributed in June to assorted public entities. The oversight came up during the commission meeting last Monday.
Wondra said then that the 50-plus checks to these entities were ready to be mailed. He also said he and his key personnel failed to receive adequate training on the new bookkeeping software.
Just over a year ago, the county switched to a system provided by Computer Information Concepts Inc. to handle its business matters. The change proved difficult for Wondra’s office and he said they are still figuring out how it works.
“I didn’t know they weren’t ready to go,” Wondra said Monday morning of the checks, adding that’s how he interpreted what his bookkeeper Renee Mater had told him. However, he learned otherwise and Mater was out sick, delaying the mailing until Wednesday.
But, in an email conversation between Wondra, County Administrator Richard Boeckman, County Clerk Donna Zimmerman and Financial Officer Jessica Wilson, Boeckman noted that Wondra told Mater not to print the checks.
Wondra’s email response was that he thought Mater had written them and was holding them. As it turned out, he went on to say in the message, she thought she shouldn’t cut them.
As for the training, Boeckman referred to an email from county auditors Adams, Brown Berran and Ball and one from software provider CIC. These indicated that the training was provided and that instruction was given on how to get out the June distribution.
“You know what this looks like to the public, don’t you?” Davis asked.
“You are completely destroying your credibility,” Commissioner Ken Lebbin said.
“I didn’t think how this would look to the public,” Wondra said. He reiterated his focus on property taxes and how time consuming that was.
“We keep having these situations with hindsight,” Lebbin said. At some point, he added, Wondra needs to take charge.
“We will try better in the future,” Wondra said. “We are a busy office.”
Wondra admitted that he hadn’t communicated and anticipated potential problems as well as he could have. Instead, he said, he was busying trying to solve problems.
“I’m convinced you have a good staff,” Davis said. “They hold you up.”
“I depend on my staff,” Wondra said.
Commissioner Homer Kruckenberg questioned Wondra’s order taking and giving abilities. He doubted his leadership skills.
“At what point would you be able to do your job?” Commissioner Jennifer Schartz asked. Her concern was with a report on the undistributed tax money that, at first, omitted funds that go to the county since it was a wire transfer instead of a physical check.
“That didn’t occur to me,” Wondra said. Wire transfers, he said, don’t show up on the check register.
“I see a pattern,” Schartz said. There have been a lot of “I don’t know and I don’t remember.”
“There have been a lot of transitions,” from the software to personnel, Wondra said. It takes time to get routines established.
Many on the commission were frustrated Monday, finding parallels between the problems in the office recently with unreconciled tax rolls dating back to 2012 and the current mess. Although now solved, the earlier problems got Wondra in trouble and came when it was time for the county’s annual audit.
The earlier problems prompted the commission to approve the hiring of a financial analyst for the Treasurer’s Office to help Wondra.
Davis brought this up Monday. He said Wondra has cost the county quite a bit of money trying to clear up past shortcomings.