So how is it that the Knox County trustee’s office has become infamous for public scandals? It’s been by generating lots of headlines for the past few years.
First, in 2011, an audit by Washington D.C.-based KPMG showed the office had made a “$6 million accounting error.” Then, in 2012, former Knox County Trustee Mike Lowe (and four others) were charged by a grand jury with felony theft, with fake payments allegedly having been paid to ghost employees between 2007-2008. Last year, then-Trustee John Duncan III pleaded guilty to official misconduct; he resigned amid charges that he gave bonuses to himself and employees in the office, even though they weren’t eligible for the extra money. Later that year, another audit, this time by Pugh CPAs, revealed that a serious accounting error had inflated the county tax revenues by $2.4 million.
Craig Leuthold, who was appointed to the interim trustee position last summer, says the office’s books have been audited twice since the audit that revealed the latest error and have been compliant both times. But both he and his fellow Republican candidates Ed Shouse and Barry Hawkins—who will face off in a primary election on May 6 to decide who will run against Democratic candidate James Berrier in August—recognize that they’ll have to prove to Knox County voters that the office will remain on the straight and narrow in their hands.
Barry Hawkins worked in the trustee’s office for 17 years in various positions, though his most recent job has been in real estate. The Knox County native says he still has contacts in the office, but his main objective, should he be elected, would be to reduce staff size.
Hawkins says he’s called the trustees of Davidson and Hamilton Counties and found their staff sizes to be about half that of Knox County. He says the county could save millions if its trustee’s office staff size was cut to that level. And he’d rather see that money go to schools and public safety.
“You can staff the satellites, but you don’t need 37 people in [the City County Building] office,” he says.
Hawkins says most counties move many duties to the finance department, and he would seek to do the same.
“We need to get in line with these other counties,” Hawkins says.
Current trustee Leuthold says the Knox County trustee’s office takes on more duties than Davidson and Hamilton Counties, which he says contract out the job of collecting delinquent taxes. In Knox County, employees are in charge of collecting delinquent payments, and that could be the cause for the difference is staff sizes.
But Hawkins says he’d also like to see more emphasis on online payments and to renegotiate the third-party payment fee. Another program Hawkins read about allows property owners to set up a payment plan to get their yearly property taxes in to the county.
Like both of his Republican opponents, Hawkins says the politics that ran rampant in the office will have to go if he’s elected.
“It won’t be easy by any means,” he says. “[But] if you can’t justify what you’re doing ... that’s one of the things where it won’t be hard.”
Hawkins says he’ll take the values with which he was raised into the office if elected. He says his father believes his handshake is his word, and he’ll conduct business with the same idea. Honesty is the best policy, Hawkins says, which is why he would maintain a transparent office and encourage a system of accountability among workers.
Above all, Hawkins says he won’t waste taxpayer dollars on funding the trustee’s office.
“I don’t want to disappoint my family,” he says. “I want people to say, ‘You’re doing a good job. You’re doing what you said you would.’”
Leuthold has a background in retail management and as a Realtor, but he also has experience running for office. His father Frank was a Knox County commissioner, and when he stepped down from his seat, Leuthold felt he had a shot at winning it for himself. He was elected twice—in 2002 and 2006.
“I’ve always had an interest in public service. I’ve always been involved in giving back to the community,” Leuthold says. And that’s how he views his time as the interim trustee.
But he also says he’s the best qualified for the job. He has a Level II state certification for property assessment, which he says gives him extra understanding into the other half of county property tax collection (the county assessor determines how much tax should be paid by each property owner). With this knowledge, Leuthold says he can give property owners some insight into whether they need to have their property reassessed. He directed one business owner to ask the property assessor to make sure he was paying the right amount in taxes. The business owner, Leuthold says, had been double assessed and now saves $4,400.
“When people call in, they don’t often know which office handles what,” he says.
Since he took over the office, Leuthold says he’s reduced staff by five positions, which he estimates is a savings of $300,000 for the county (that brings the total trustee staff to 40). He says he also did the first job evaluations the office has seen in 10 years.
After evaluating where his employees’ strengths lie, he says he was able to put them in jobs they’d succeed at. For example, he mentions one employee who really enjoyed interacting with people and was bored in the position she had. She was able to move from the City-County Building to a satellite office where she regularly engages with people.
If elected, one of Leuthold’s goals is to work with the city government to consolidate tax statements. It would be more efficient for everyone, he says, if city and county tax statements were sent together. More people have started paying their taxes online, and Leuthold says he hopes to put out a bid for a new company to reduce the fees associated with paying online with a debit or credit card. He’d also like to look into allowing people to opt-in to receive their statements via e-mail.
If he’s elected trustee, Leuthold says he’ll maintain his open-door and open-phone policy, continue to put reports online, and invite the public to inspect his office whenever they want.
“You’re not going to be able to build trust overnight,” he says. “All we can do is, we’re going to come in today and do it the right way. And hopefully over time people will know that, yes, we’re doing it the right way.”
Ultimately, he says, he’ll earn back the county’s trust in the previously troubled office by keeping his word, doing his job, and continuing to collect the taxes owed.
Current Knox County Commissioner Ed Shouse is giving up his seat (which he’s held since 2008) to run for county trustee. Why? He wants to be the “county’s banker.”
Though Shouse has held part-time government positions as both a Knoxville City Council member and a County Commissioner , they’ve all been elected positions. Most of his career has been in banking (he was a corporate trustee for First Tennessee Bank for 10 years) and as a shortline railroad executive.
“I didn’t get [elected] with connections in the courthouse, or my relatives were on Commission, or my friends were on Commission. I was elected by the people and I’ve had part-time positions,” he says.
Shouse has also served on financial committees as a commissioner. He’s the current chair of the finance committee, and is the vice-chair of the retirement board and the audit committee.
First and foremost for Shouse is taking the politics out of the trustee’s office, he says. Like Leuthold, he’d have an open-door policy if elected. Shouse says his track record in local politics has “shown I’m a person of integrity,” which he says the office needs.
He says he’d take a look at the staff size and evaluate whether some positions could be cut, though he doesn’t elaborate. He’d also make sure that the tax revenue collected is invested wisely—he says he’ll draw on the experience he gained while serving on the Knoxville City Council’s investment committee.
“There is sometimes a huge amount of money to invest—sometimes $150 or $160 million—and in the summertime, that drops down to about $20 million. Nevertheless, that’s a lot of money by most people’s definitions,” Shouse says. (The revenue fluctuates based on when people usually pay their property taxes.)
Shouse says good business practices, and balanced and regularly-audited accounts, would also be priorities if elected. Unlike Leuthold, he does not have any experience as a property assessor, but he says he would be focused on making sure the trustee’s office is run as efficiently as possible.
“It’s easier said than done, but I would do my best to take the politics and cronyism out of that part of government,” Shouse says.