County treasurer, keeper of the money and much more

The Guide to Michigan County Government is a source of detailed information regarding the structure, function, and services provided by Michigan counties.

A preoccupation with the accountability for the funds is how Michigan State University Emeritus Professor and Author Ken VerBurg characterizes the role of the county treasurer.  VerBurg provides this profile, along with a little history, in this excerpt from the Fourth edition of the Guide to Michigan County Government, an MSU publication.

“Reading through the statutes outlining the duties of the county treasurer, we conclude that the laws have a preoccupation with the accountability for the funds. That is, the previous acts of the legislature seem to say that the main duties of treasurers are to report (a) where the money under their control came from, (b) to whom they paid out money, and (c) where they are keeping the money still under their control. This emphasis comes from a time when accounting methods were not advanced and when the banking industry was in its infancy. Under such circumstances, treasurers were thought of as guardians of the county's money stashed away in a fireproof vault.

County treasurers, as the 1948 statute MCL 48.40 provides, have the responsibility to receive all moneys 'from whatever source they may be derived.' And treasurers may not make payments except upon an order of the board of commissioners signed by the clerk and the chair of the board. Another example of the emphasis on accountability is that treasurers may deposit funds only in banks designated by the county board, MCL 129.31. Similarly, MCL 129.71 says treasurers may not invest surplus funds unless they are so directed by the county board.

Several other statutes set a rather security-minded tone for the work treasurers have to do. County treasurers must maintain a book of accounts and record the funds received, show the balances in each of the bank accounts, and report periodically to the board of commissioners. They are also directed to review the checks for payment, checks usually prepared by the county clerk or finance department, and  to  make  certain  that  the  accounts  on  which  the  checks  or warrants are to be drawn have funds enough to make the payments.  Treasurers typically do not prepare the checks because these come from the clerk or finance department in the form of warrants or orders to pay. The statutes articulate the primary characteristics of organizational financial control but do not reflect contemporary processes.

If this were all county treasurers were responsible for, we might not consider their jobs to be very challenging. To be sure, it is important to have someone in the office who can track a large number of different deposits and bank accounts. In fact, the duties outlined above are not a large portion of what most treasurers actually spend their time doing. The modern county treasurer must be a great deal more than an officer who just takes a few orders from the state laws and carries them out. Treasurers must still give a thorough accounting of the funds that come under their control. With modern banking and accounting technologies, they are much more than just custodians of the physical treasury. County treasurers today should be involved in classifying and recording the nature of the receipts.

Treasurers also have other duties in connection with property tax administration: distributing and reconciling taxes collected by city and township treasurers, handling delinquent property tax accounts, operating a delinquent tax revolving fund, and certifying the payment of property taxes. Still other duties for some treasurers include the sale of dog licenses, as well as serving as members of statutory panels such as the apportionment commission, plat board, tax allocation board, and more. Nevertheless, for such assignments, the law separates the office of treasurer from the flow of many county management functions to protect the county against possible compromise of fiscal integrity.”

Watch for future Michigan State University Extension articles with more information about county government. Professor VerBurg’s book, Guide to Michigan County Government, Fourth Edition, is available in electronic form online on a CD or a USB drive with nearly 500 pages of detailed information about county government, and extensive footnotes to constitutional and statutory information. The book is being updated so information and statutory notations are current. The Fifth Edition is expected early winter 2016/2017. Ordering information will be announced in an MSU Extension article.

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