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County treasurer candidates both push customer service

The two candidates vying for the job of collecting taxes in Kootenai County say the most important part of the job is customer service, particularly given the anti-tax climate that seems to permeate the area.

Incumbent county Treasurer Tom Malzahn, a Republican, and challenger Dan Duffey, a Democrat, both want to improve the way taxpayers are treated in the office by making the process more efficient. The only difference is Malzahn says he’s made great changes to the office in his years as treasurer, while Duffey says he’ll do better.

Duffey has worked as senior accountant in the county auditor’s office for nearly nine years. He and Malzahn work in the same building, separated by a few cubicle walls. Duffey said he knows more can be done in the treasurer’s office to make things easier for taxpayers. He wants to set up a program that would allow citizens to pay their taxes online, avoiding a long wait at the treasurer’s office.

Malzahn said he wants to do that, too. In fact, he’s already started implementing an online program and expects it to be up and running in time for this December’s tax payments.

“We’re taking some big steps here,” he said.

Duffey said he was inspired to run because he thinks things can be done differently. And instead of just complaining about it, he said, he wants to try to make a difference.

“I’m very much an idealist,” he said.

When it came time to pay his taxes, Duffey said he stood in line at the treasurer’s office just like any citizen would, despite offerings from his co-workers that he skip the line.

“I deliberately went in line just like everybody else did to kind of gauge the flow of things,” he said. “That’s how I want to approach this – I want to look through the eyes of a citizen.”

It was through that experience and his years in the office that he realized things could be done differently, and better, he said.

“I want to encourage accessibility,” he said.

His ideas include community meetings, introductory finance classes and tours of the treasurer’s office so that taxpayers know who’s handling their money and what exactly they do.

Malzahn shares those ideas, too, and said he’s worked to implement many of them.

Malzahn points to his work over the years as evidence that he’s moving the treasurer’s office in the right direction. He’s cut the size of the department and has implemented a new type of program that involves U S Bank employees scanning in payment checks themselves and giving a report to the treasurer’s office. This means the money is deposited into the bank the day the check arrives, which earns the county more money through the interest rate, instead of waiting for county employees to process the payments.

“The money’s working for us that day,” he said. “Before, it was weeks.”

Malzahn said he’s particularly proud of the drop boxes around the county that allow taxpayers to drop off their payments instead of waiting in line at the county office. Duffey would like to see more of those boxes in place.

Both say there’s a strong need for better education about what the treasurer’s office does and what government does in general.

“Our typical public doesn’t know what government does,” Malzahn said. “And whose fault is that? It’s my fault. It’s the elected officials’ fault.”

Malzahn said he’s been in touch with area school districts about giving presentations to high school seniors about property taxes and finance so that they’ll know what they’re paying for once they start paying taxes. He does similar presentations at senior centers and Kiwanis Club meetings.

Duffey said if elected he wants to better inform the public about what their tax dollars pay for.

“There’s a perception out there that there’s no services,” he said. In the current anti-tax climate, more education about those services might ease the concerns and outrage some feel, he said.

“My perception would change if I knew I was getting something for it,” he said.

Elected officials argue that tax increases equate to more services, he said, but they don’t always acknowledge that citizens are already paying taxes and getting services.

“Those are the things that over the years got me so frustrated,” Duffey said.

Malzahn said he thinks citizens realize the treasurer’s office is open and accessible. He gets calls from them all the time, he said.

The election is Nov. 7.


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