Checks and imbalances: Are Staunton leaders aiming at elimination of revenue, treasurer offices?

Story by Chris Graham

Staunton commissioner of the revenue candidate Maggie Ragon stumbled on the question initially.

She had just been asked by a candidates’ forum moderator her thoughts on the issue of whether or not the office of commissioner of the revenue should remain an elected office.

“That’s a good question,” said Ragon, who is challenging embattled incumbent commissioner Ray Ergenbright in next week’s election.

“I believe that if and when the taxpayers feel that there are sufficient checks and balances in place to relinquish the need for these offices, then at that point and time, there will be a healthy debate between the citizenry about that issue,” Ragon said after collecting her thoughts.

“That issue, however, is not on the ballot on Nov. 8. And I’m here to commit my effort to working to correct the issues that currently exist in the commissioner of revenue office, and not to be concerned with an issue that is not currently on the ballot,” Ragon said.

Ergenbright has seized on that answer as being an indication of what he has been saying for months has been what Ragon’s political challenge to him has been all about.

“I don’t think she has any desire to be commissioner of the revenue. I think she’s doing it because it’s their way of circumventing the public,” Ergenbright told The Augusta Free Press.

The they in their, in Ergenbright’s mind, are members of Staunton City Council that the three-term commissioner feels wants to put in motion the elimination of the revenue and treasurer offices in the Queen City.

“In my mind, I don’t believe that the members of city council who have expressed through editorial columns, through appearances at the General Assembly and through comments made to the public that they would like to eliminate the constitutional-officer form of government believe a referendum will pass, as it would need to pass to get rid of this office. I think they’re using this avenue in order to get a weak commissioner of the revenue in the office for the sole purpose of eliminating the office,” Ergenbright said.

Mayor John Avoli, for one, said he has no such aspirations – and that he has not given the idea of doing away with the offices enough thought to come to a conclusion as to whether it would even be a good idea.

But a key issue to consider, Avoli told the AFP, is the cost to local and state taxpayers associated with having separate constitutional officers.

“The question is that when you look at the expenditures from the state, from the state compensation board, and the expenses that the locality has to make up, it is quite a bit of money that both the Commonwealth of Virginia as well as localities have to put out to pay for these offices. An issue that we’ve had to face over the years here in Staunton is that the compensation board has cut the office budgets, and it’s up to the local governments to make them up,” Avoli said.

Avoli went on to say that any move to change the current government setup in Staunton would have to be initiated by the voters. City Councilwoman Jean Donovan, for her part, offered that she thinks the public might be inclined to support such a change in light of the controversy in City Hall that unfolded over the course of the past two years regarding the eventual council decision to scrap a revenue-management system that couldn’t be made to work, according to insiders, because of Ergenbright’s recalcitrance.

“When there is a problem, it’s easier to say, look, all is not well, and maybe now is the time for change,” Donovan told the AFP.

“I do think given the fiasco that we’ve witnessed in past year now, in terms of the inefficiency and the animosity that has evolved between the treasurer, the commissioner of revenue, the council and the rest of city government, I think it’s a good time for the public to look at exactly what many of us have argued, which is that this is indeed an archaic structure, and it’s not for the good of the city,” Donovan said.

Of interest here is that Ragon herself doesn’t seem to see things the same way.

“I believe that this office is a layer of government that can work for the citizens and for the voters and taxpayers,” Ragon told the AFP. “I think it gives the taxpayer a tangible connection and a layer of protection, so to speak. I think people appreciate the fact that they have someone that they feel they can go to where they can talk about the issues and to work with if they have any sort of problems with their assessments and so forth.

“So I think it works well for the taxpayers, and I think it gives taxpayers a level of comfort that there is someone that they can directly contact and work with and is going to work on the revenue side of the budget with them,” Ragon said.

“It’s something that provides that check and balance between what the taxpayers are turning in and what is being spent by the city as far as providing services for taxpayers. So it kind of levels everything out,” Ragon said.

Rick Johnson, who is challenging treasurer Elnora Hazlett, who has herself come under fire in the wake of her decision to file suit against the city following a move by city council to strip her office of some of its responsibilities, agrees with Ragon that the city’s constitutional offices “have to be in place for people to have a say.”

“I think that’s what constitutional offices allow, is to give the voters a direct say,” Johnson told the AFP. “When you have problems like the treasurer office and the commissioner of revenue office have had here, the people can have a say in whether they want to continue with what has been going on, or if they want to make a change. If you take that away, though, if you take those offices away, how much of a say are they going to have?”

Ergenbright remains convinced that there is more to what is going on in Staunton than what meets the eye.

“City council and their elitist attitude is that they’re smarter than the population, and they think that the form of government where they have all the control would be a better form of government. I vehemently am opposed to that. Oppressive and elitist governments have reigned throughout the world, but it doesn’t happen in America. And I think we need to be cautious of that,” Ergenbright said.

“I think we definitely need a change. But I don’t think we need to change the commissioner of revenue for doing his job. I think we need to look at a change in city council to get away from this elitist type of oppressive government that I think we have in this city,” Ergenbright said.

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