State Representative and former Washington County Collector Mike McGirl, R-Potosi, recently addressed claims that the current Washington County collector, Carla Zettler, reportedly made to authorities while she was being questioned about alleged thefts from her office.
Zettler, 50, of Mineral Point, was charged June 22 with three counts of felony stealing, one count of felony forgery, and misdemeanor official misconduct. Zettler, two collector's office employees, and one former employee are accused of stealing from Washington County by receiving cash fees for processing trustee property sales.
During an investigation that led up to the charges being filed, police interviewed Zettler about how Woodland Lake Development lot sales were handled by the office.
Zettler reportedly told police that when the former collector, McGirl, was serving as the collector and she was deputy collector, an agreement was made through the county commission to sell Woodland Lake Development lots for $1 plus $99 of associated fees in order to aid their removal from the delinquent tax list.
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An investigator states in his report that a review of commission meeting reports by the Washington County clerk found no authorization to sell these lots for $1. There was, however, a commission meeting in 2011 allowing the sale of these camping lots for $50.
Zettler reportedly told authorities that, of the $100 which her office collected in either cash or money order, $1 went to the cost of the lot. Other moneys went to the process of recording the lot, leaving $23 to the trustee and a $19 fee that went to the county collector's office employee making the transaction.
The police report states Zettler told the investigator she was just doing it the way McGirl did it. She also stated residents who wanted to get a copy of the Woodland Lake lot lists were charged $5, which went to petty cash.
Authorities interviewed McGirl, who told them that was not how he handled these sales.
After the Daily Journal published articles about the charges against Zettler, McGirl reached out to the news outlet with a response to Zettler's reported statements to investigators.
"I want to take a moment to respond to some of the aspersions and lies that have been published since the discovery of the theft of county money," McGirl said. "I served as the Collector of Revenue of Washington County for 24 years, winning six straight elections, before I retired.
"From March of 1991 until I ended my tenure in February 2015, I worked hard to bring innovation and productivity to an office that had not seen those concepts applied before," he explained. "I came into an office that operated with hand-written books and records, and tax bills printed on dot-matrix. My predecessor did his best, but I was able to draw on my education and experience in business to improve operations, from generating tax bills by laser printer to taking payments in more efficiently, and maintaining strict controls for reporting and reconciliation of county monies.
"I applied for and was awarded a large grant to safeguard county tax records and make them accessible electronically," McGirl noted. "This opened the door to being able to pioneer the program to upload the county personal property taxes to the state license bureaus. This is now state-wide standard practice, and I was instrumental in developing and implementing the program, putting Washington County on the leading edge of digital tax lookups. This is the reason why you don't have to have a paper receipt to prove you've paid your vehicle taxes now when you go buy or renew licenses.
"Another area I was able to overhaul was the annual property tax sale for delinquent back taxes," said the former collector. "When I took office, the county had no trustee to oversee its holdings. State law does allow for this, but the county collector has to take on those duties when there's not a trustee. I was able to find a viable candidate to fill that role, and the county commission at the time appointed her. When a property is offered for sale to collect back taxes owed, and no one buys it, eventually something has to be done with that parcel. When I took office and started holding land sales on the courthouse steps, any properties that didn't sell after being offered three times could now be transferred to county ownership under the stewardship of the trustee, and the county was able to start selling these properties and collect its money due.
"Most of these type properties are lake lots and have low annual taxes," McGirl mentioned. "At the time I took office, there were thousands of such lake lots stagnating on the books, and I requested that the county commission discount the lower-value lots in an effort to make them affordable for purchase. The commission saw the merit of my plan and approved it, and the county was able to clear a large unpaid balance from its tax rolls as those sold. We followed the State regulations in implementing every step of the plan to ensure that even though discounts were in place, the proper proceeds were allocated to every office, be it the trustee, the recorder of deeds, or the county treasurer.
"When a property is turned over, the collector's office has to prepare a deed for that parcel and transfer ownership of it from the delinquent taxpayer to the buyer — which is the county trustee when a lot doesn't sell after three offerings," McGirl explained. "A Collector's Deed is also prepared for any parcel sold to a buyer who wins the bidding at the land sale. This is standard duties for collector's office staff, and these are the only deeds my staff and I ever prepared. In my 24 years of service, the State Auditor visited on schedule every four years and checked our records and procedures. Every single one was clean. These audit records are available for review on the State Auditor's website back to 1999."
"It has been stated by the current collector and her attorney that she is simply following the procedures that I set in place during my tenure," McGirl noted. "This is patently false, as attested to by the fact that not one single audit of my books in 24 years ever reported missing funds. All tax receipts and fees collected were properly turned over to the county. My record speaks for itself, and if the guidelines I established had indeed been followed, this forensic audit would not have discovered over 100 thousand dollars missing from the county's funds."
Bobby Radford is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com