Counties are essential to providing services to Texas residents, but much of what counties do can't be done without the well-oiled machine within that keeps counties operating.
An important piece of that machine is the treasurer's office. Treasurers serve as the stewards of the thousands – if not millions – of dollars that are collected from taxes and fees by various county offices. They disburse those monies as the commissioners court may require, but not inconsistent with law.
Though they rarely have direct contact with local residents, treasurers provide them a service – by ensuring their tax dollars are being managed properly, said Gayla Hawkins, who has served as county Treasurer in two counties, San Saba for 18 years and Grayson for eight years, and is the current president of the County Treasurers' Association of Texas.
"I know how hard people work for their money. As a divorced, single mother for many years, I know it takes a lot of hard work to make ends meet. For me, that is a huge motivator for serving in this capacity – I just want to help protect the taxpayers' money," Hawkins said.
Treasurers' duties are outlined in state law, which includes requirements to maintain meticulous records on money going in and out of county accounts, as well as to invest the county funds. Among the accomplishments Tracy Soldan, Kerr County Treasurer, said she is most proud of is taking over the investment of county funds from a third-party firm more than a decade ago, saving Kerr County more than $20,000 in that first year. As the county's investment officer, she said it is her responsibility to invest funds, and by doing so, the county can keep 100% of investment earnings without having to pay a firm for its services.
Like many roles within county government, the job has changed drastically over the decades, from one that was simply a banker for the county to one that must also focus on cybersecurity threats. "County governments seem to be a favorite target for hackers, and we need to establish firm internal controls and work closely with our IT departments to protect our network and financial systems," said Soldan, who also serves on the TAC Risk Management Pool board.
Another challenge is more existential. Nine counties have eliminated their treasurer's office, and two others could be next. At the time of this magazine's publication, state lawmakers have filed bills that would allow voters to decide in November whether to abolish the office in those counties.
Supporters of elimination say the treasurer's duties can be absorbed by other county offices – often the auditor's office – thus, saving taxpayer dollars. Hawkins and Soldan said money is rarely saved since the responsibilities are not eliminated. In at least one county, the auditor's office has had to create a whole other division to perform the treasurer's duties, Hawkins said.
And, absorbing the treasurer's duties into the auditor’s office defies the statutory duties prescribed specifically for treasurers in the face of governmental checks and balances, they said.
"If these duties are transferred to the county auditor, who is auditing the auditor on a regular basis?" Hawkins said. "This movement would erode transparency, accountability and fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers and voters, and would be fiscally irresponsible of the county as a whole."
The position of county treasurer remains a vital and productiveposition, regardless of the countypopulation, Hawkins said. Thissystem was created to prevent the concentration of power from being afforded to any office whether itbe elected (treasurer) or appointed(auditor), and for the two to work in tandem to maintain financial integrity in county finances, Hawkins said.
"The treasurer's office remains crucial for the framework and financial structure of county government as a whole," Hawkins said.
Often a treasurer's job is much more than what is listed in statute. Soldan is a leader in the county's Healthy County Program, motivating employees to live healthier lives, helping to keep insurance premiums down for both the county and employees.
A favorite part of Hawkins' job is being able to collaborate with other county offices and brainstorm ideas with them about projects that could improve their services. She also stressed the importance of carving out just a minute to visit with every individual who enters her office, whether a local resident or an employee from another department.
"I want our taxpayers, citizens to know that they are not an interruption of our work," Hawkins said. "They are the purpose of it."