By Tom Mowle
With budget problems affecting every level of government, people are calling for government to be run more like a business. People more than ever expect government to live within its means, just as they themselves must, or risk joining those in foreclosure or bankruptcy. My Public Trustee Office has met these challenges by doing more work while spending less money — and without reducing services.
As public trustee, I protect the rights of borrowers and lenders when property is in foreclosure. For borrowers, this means making sure that lenders follow the rules when they file a foreclosure, and that borrowers get honest and helpful answers to their questions. For lenders, this means making sure they have the opportunity to recover what is owed.
Colorado is the only state that charges a public official with this duty. Other states handle foreclosures in the courts or through a trustee who works for the bank. I am proud to have served the people of El Paso County as the governor’s appointed public trustee since February 2008.
In 2007, the year before I was appointed, 3,556 foreclosures were started in El Paso County. Last year, 5,470 were started — a 54 percent increase in two years. Many offices would hire more staff and spend more money to handle such an increase in workload. Not mine. I reduced staff and expenses and eliminated a backlog of undone work I inherited.
In 2006 and 2007, the last two years before I became public trustee, it cost about $230 to process a foreclosure. The standard fees collected per foreclosure totaled about $185 — a $45 loss on every transaction. So how did the office function under my predecessors? It used the income from releasing deeds of trust, for which the fees were much higher for the amount of work performed. It also used hidden subsidies from the El Paso County General Fund — the county provided facilities, services, even unique software development without charging the public trustee. Taxpayers paid these costs. Finally, in 2002, a prior public trustee had simply added an extra fee of $57 to every foreclosure.
This covered the excessive expenses, but it did not comply with the law.
Last year, it cost my office only $117.05 to process each foreclosure — a 49 percent reduction. Without this savings, the public trustee would have spent an additional $412,000 in 2008 and an additional $788,000 in 2009 — money that would have come out of the county’s general fund.
Not only did I save money that would have been spent if the office had not become more efficient, I also lowered our actual expenses from $1.225 million in 2007 to $831,000 in 2009. Even these figures still understate the total efficiency gained, as changes in the law have made foreclosures more complex than they used to be. We also now reimburse El Paso County for the services it provides this office.
How have we done this?
We outsourced functions that are not part of a core government mission, in particular, software development and printing.
We restructured the office and cross-trained the deputies, eliminating middle management and creating a more resilient work force backed up, for the first time, with written instructions on how to get the work done.
We used technology to make foreclosure information more available to the public, and to staff within the office.
We eliminated “busy work” that didn’t need to be done.
Finally, I treated my deputies with respect. I got rid of the video cameras monitoring every desk. I bolstered teamwork and rewarded the deputies who were most innovative and productive.
Let’s transfer these ideas and actions to the rest of local government, where many opportunities remain for increasing efficiency. Government needs to live within its budget as set by the people. Imagine repeating the gains I have achieved as public trustee in other local offices.
We would be able to balance budgets, restore services and avoid calls for tax increases.
Above all, let’s not create extra fees and impose them on people struggling in these difficult economic times. For example, remember that improper fee that one of my predecessors added back in 2002?
I got rid of it and returned money to people trying to save their homes.
Tom Mowle has been El Paso County public trustee since 2008 and is running for El Paso County clerk and recorder. Visit his web site at www.elpasopublictrustee.com