By DON O'BRIEN
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Republican city treasurer candidate Tom Ernst would propose merging the treasurer and comptroller offices and increase online bill payment options if elected.
Ernst, 56, laid out those plans during a short Wednesday news conference, his first public statement since filing to run for city treasurer in November. He faces incumbent Treasurer Peggy Crim in the April 9 municipal election.
Ernst said merging the functions of the two offices and eliminating the comptroller position and save taxpayers $70,000 a year. He admitted he was not sure how he would do that in light of the city code, which requires a comptroller appointed by the mayor with the advice and consent of the City Council.
The treasurer oversees an office that handles accounts receivable, investments and water payment collection. The comptroller's office handles payroll and accounts payable for the city, the Quincy Public Library and Quincy Township. The comptroller also helps prepare the annual city budget.
Five employees work in each office.
Ann Scott, who has served as comptroller since 2000, also has functioned as director of purchasing since that position was eliminated when Dave Hummel took advantage of an early retirement incentive. Scott's annual salary is $88,369.
"It would be easy for the citizens of Quincy to elect one person to not only take in the money and manage the money, but to pay out the money," Ernst said.
Scott disagreed, saying "it's preferable to have the checks and balances of the two offices" so one person does not have complete control of all moneys.
In defending the current setup, Crim cited the case of former Dixon Comptroller Rita Crundwell, who was found guilty of swindling more than $53 million from the northern Illinois city over more than 20 years. Crundwell had sole control of city finances.
"I guess, technically, you could have one person in charge of both things, but where are the checks and balances within that?" Crim said. "I would think that the people of Dixon wish that they had had those checks and balances."
Ernst also said he would like to implement an online bill pay system.
"The current treasurer said she looked into this years ago, and the cost was too expensive," Ernst said. "Costs have gone down in the last few years, and there has been no discussions into implementing this convenience for the taxpayers to pay their bills online."
Ernst said he did not know what such a program would cost.
Crim, who was first elected in 2001, said an online bill payment system was one of the first things she explored when she took office.
"At the time, it was going to cost us over $100,000 to have a true online ability to pay your bill," she said.
Crim said the city officials have looked at programs offered by two or three companies in the past year that could be integrated into the city's financial system, but the price tag is still $22,000.
"We haven't taken it to the aldermen because of the costs," she said. "That's still $22,000, and $22,000 ... still seems a little high."
Crim said her office allows electronic payment of bills through the state's e-pay system, but customers pay a convenience fee to a credit card company. Neither the state nor the city receive any money generated from that fee. Customers also have the option of automatic withdrawal.
Ernst served on the Quincy Park Board from 1993 to 2005 and was elected commissioner again in 2011. He made an unsuccessful attempt to unseat state Sen. John Sullivan in 2004.
"The people of Quincy are ready for somebody that's got some business experience who is willing to call it like it is, to be a strong voice in the treasurer's office who will stand up for the taxpayers and be an independent watchdog, thus avoiding financial pitfalls," he said.