Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn, a Republican candidate for state treasurer, fired back Wednesday at county commissioners questioning the way she’s handled a mistake that left local taxing entities short nearly $6 million for months.
Horn also denied the incident might damage her statewide campaign, telling Colorado Politics the imbroglio demonstrates she has the skills to handle problems in a treasurer’s office when they arise.
“I definitely want to make clear that not one dime of Routt County tax dollars was lost or misspent or that one Routt County program lost even one dime,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “And I definitely take responsibility that this issue has been corrected and, moving forward, will never happen again.”
The problem, first reported late Tuesday by the Steamboat Pilot & Today, involved a computer system that calculates how much of the tax revenue the county collects gets distributed to the county, towns, schools, libraries and other taxing entities within its boundaries. When it came time for Horn’s office to send out checks for April tax receipts, it turns out, she only distributed money from a nine-day period, instead of the whole month, leaving $5.8 million sitting in treasurer coffers until July, when the error was discovered and the funds delivered.
The discrepancy, Horn said Wednesday, happened because “an ex-employee overrode the default software settings for the distribution period” to set the shorter span and then didn’t tell anyone.
Horn wrote in a strongly worded letter to the county’s three commissioners that she’s taken care of the problem but declined to release details “until we have finalized all such new procedures, which remain under review.”
“We’re going to have our eyes on it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Horn told Colorado Politics.
She added that the taxing entities that have contacted her since the problem came to light have been “so grateful. They say, ‘Errors happen, things happen, you had the money the whole time.’ And, bonus, I’m going to give them the interest on that money. I’m going to call it a win-win.”
In a letter to Horn delivered Wednesday, however, the town manager of Hayden put things a bit differently. While Mathew Mendisco said he was “thankful that the issue has been addressed,” he peppered Horn with questions about the problem and her response to it, adding, “waiting this long to notify the various local governments that were affected of the issue is ‘unacceptable’.”
It was Horn’s intention to include interest payments with the funds, described in a July 20 memo to the taxing entities, that raised concern among the county commissioners, Commissioner Cari Hermacinski told Colorado Politics. She said the way Horn first described the interest payments “was alarming to us” and led to the commissioners asking for details.
As it happened, Horn planned to include the interest accrued by the undistributed funds during the months they sat in deposit accounts — amounting to roughly a 1-percent annual return. Hermacinski said the commissioners had first wondered whether she planned to deliver the more customary 1 percent per month interest that governments typically pay, which could add up to an eyebrow-raising $120,000.
“If she’s giving them what the county earned while it had the funds, that makes absolute sense to me,” Hermacinski said.
Horn, however, struck a more combative tone in the letter she sent to the commissioners on Wednesday, calling their earlier inquiries “unduly antagonistic and formal.” Horn wrote that she suspects “the Commission’s recent actions will be as counterproductive, unnecessary and potentially costly effort to insert itself into matters that are the responsibility of an independent elected official.”
Hermacinski sighed when she read portions of Horn’s letter provided by Colorado Politics — she hadn’t received it directly from Horn yet — and reiterated that commissioners had merely been concerned Horn might have committed the county to paying out a lot more interest than it looks like would happen.
“While she is her own independent, elected official — as are the sheriff and the assessor — their budgets all have to be approved by the Board of Commissioners,” Hermacinski said. “We can’t act unilaterally, it needs two of the three of us to approve spending money.”
As for her campaign for state treasurer — she’s one of four Republicans so far vying in a primary for the seat — Horn said the problem and her response to it highlight her qualifications for the office.
“I’m definitely doing my job. I have the experience to see when these things happen and have the skillset to take care of it,” she told Colorado Politics. “If anybody does say anything negative about it, then they don’t understand leadership, they don’t understand management, they don’t understand having an office with people you have to deal with when these things happen.”
The other Republicans seeking the office held by term-limited State Treasurer Walker Stapleton are state Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud and state Reps. Justin Everett of Littleton and Polly Lawrence of Roxborough Park. Other potential GOP candidates include businessman and former legislative candidate Brian Watson and Republican National Committeeman George Leing, a former congressional candidate.
State Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton is the only Democrat so far in the race.