DENVER – Whether facing allegations of moonlighting or misspent funds, Colorado’s 10 appointed public trustees have faced great scrutiny in the past year.
Despite being in hot-water, proposals at the Capitol to do away with all or some of the posts, appear dead in the water.
“With a Democratic controlled Senate and House, they own this issue,” said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs. “In El Paso County we’re forced to have a public trustee who is not elected and there doesn’t seem to be any rationale for that. It overrides the home rule concept based upon an archaic law that is based on a patronage system from the governor.”
Lambert proposed a bill to eliminate the trustees, but it was defeated in committee by Democrats 3-2.
He’s also the co-author of a House bill that would eliminate the trustees only in El Paso and Mesa counties. That bill was scheduled to be heard Thursday, but was not taken up.
Public trustees are responsible for handling deeds, liens and foreclosures in 10 counties. They are appointed by the governor to four-year terms.
In 52 counties those responsibilities are handled by the elected county treasurers as part of their duties. Denver and Broomfield counties operate under their own systems defined in local laws.
El Paso County Public Trustee Thomas Mowle said the system is designed so larger counties — other than Denver County — can have an independent office to handle the greater workload.
In 2012, his office handled an average of almost 800 releases of deeds and started 65 foreclosures every week.
“It’s a lot of work we do in this office,” Mowle said. “It is stunning how much more work there is in a county like El Paso than in smaller counties.”
Mowle said in 2011, more than half of the counties averaged fewer than one foreclosure filing a week.
But in addition to handling the heavy workload, Mowle said the appointment system allows for oversight, consistency and a separation from potential conflicts of interest when it comes to revenue.
“Public trustees handle 70 percent of the work in Colorado with one boss,” Mowle said.
El Paso County Treasurer Bob Balink said he could take over the deed and foreclosure duties, eliminate employees and save the county $150,000 a year.
“Through attrition or through retirement, I know I can eliminate one position from the two combined offices,” Balink said.
The public trustees on average earn about $72,000, plus benefits.
Treasurers who handle the job earn an additional salary of $12,500 — a stipend Balink said he wouldn’t be interested in if given the extra duty.
“We should always be trying to find more efficiency,” Balink said.
Mowle said he has cut his department’s budget in half. In 2012 the agency generated $1.36 million in funds and had $612,000 in expenses, compared to five years ago when the agency brought in almost the same revenue and spent $1.25 million to run the office.
“We sent $765,000 to El Paso County to be able to use for general revenue,” Mowle said. “Our staff is half the size it used to be.”
In July, all 10 trustees resigned after an investigation brought to light questionable spending practices by some of the officials.
Mowle was later reappointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper and the El Paso County office was never included in reports of malfeasance.
Lambert had introduced a bill to do away with the officials before the reports came out, but he said the questions only fueled his desire for reform.
“When people are not accountable to local authorities they have a greater temptation I think to try to make up their own rules and they got caught doing it,” Lambert said.
Mowle said last year’s house-cleaning is evidence of how responsive the appointment system is.
The Denver Post reported Thursday that Boulder County Trustee Paul Weissmann also is working for House Democrats as a legislative aide — a double-shift scenario known as moonlighting.
“He was the chief of staff of the Democratic caucus and now he has a governor appointed job as a public trustee,” Lambert said. “This is really what we’re talking about. These are political appointments which lack the kind of oversight and local control they ought to have.”
Eric Brown, spokesman for Hickenlooper, told The Post there was no conflict of interest and Weissmann is an exceptional public servant.
About the Bill
HB49: would eliminate the governor appointed position of public trustee in El Paso and Mesa counties, and beginning in January 2014 the county treasurer would handle the deeds and foreclosures for the counties, earning an additional stipened for the duties.
Authors: Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, and Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs
Next Step: House Local Government Committee
Contact Megan Schrader: 719-286-0644 Twitter @CapitolSchrader