Beyond being where homeowners send their property tax payments, the Snohomish County Treasurer’s Office operates much like a company’s business office: processing payments, distributing funds and making investment decisions.
For the last 12 years, the nonpartisan office has been run by Kirke Sievers, who has served in public office for a total of 43 years, including two terms on the Snohomish County Council. Facing a term limit, Sievers will step aside for a new treasurer, a race that drew two candidates: Marysville City Council member Rob Toyer and County Council member Brian Sullivan.
Neither candidate has a degree in accounting, but that’s not a prerequisite for a position that is largely about customer service and managing the office’s 27 employees.
Both have business and public-office experience relevant to the position.
Toyer has served on the Marysville council for eight years, as well as on the city’s fire board and the council’s finance committee; he previously served on the city’s planning commission. Following service with the Marine Corps in Iraq, Toyer returned home and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and started his own business as a licensed financial adviser. Toyer also points to on-the-job training at his uncle’s accounting business in Everett.
Sullivan has a few years to go to match Sievers’ length of service, but the Mukilteo resident, who has operated a restaurant in Mukilteo for 30 years, has held political office since 1986, starting on the Marysville city council, as Mukilteo mayor, as a state legislator and now three terms on the County Council.
In a discussion with the editorial board, both candidates demonstrated detailed knowledge of the office, its responsibilities and coming challenges and expressed general agreement on issues of service to taxpayers and the taxing districts it serves, including school, fire, hospital and other districts.
One area where the two differ in philosophy is in the office’s investment responsibilities. A lesser-known task of the office are its duties to direct investments for the county but also for the various taxing districts in the county. The decisions largely are guided by the county’s investment officer and the county finance committee — the treasurer, county executive and county council chairperson — with additional direction from the county’s investment policy, last updated in 2017. Both candidates were quick to praise the work of the investment officer, Arif Kanji.
Combined, the county holds about $1.1 billion in investments for itself and other districts. Current investments are earning about $40 million annually, Sullivan said.
That’s an acceptable return on investment, but a slightly more aggressive approach, Toyer said, could increase returns that would add to the revenue for the county and its districts. Toyer, referring to his professional experience, said he believed that can be done without greatly increasing risk.
Sullivan, a Democrat on the county council, said he’d take “a more Republican” approach, noting that some investment options can reduce liquidity of funds — affecting their availability for use in an emergency — and that even slightly riskier investments could bring losses during an economic downturn.
Toyer said he hopes to promote greater transparency for the office and — noting that the office is a revenue generator for the county — wants to work to boost staffing in the office to increase revenue.
Sullivan has a number of proposals for which he said he’d advocate if elected. Among them are plans for the county’s foreclosure account. In a foreclosure, after back taxes and outstanding mortgages are paid, the balance is either released to the former property owner or held for three years by the county if the property owner can’t be found. After three years, if the former owner doesn’t claim the money, the funds go to the county’s general fund.
Sullivan said he’s proposing to use half of those funds — now totaling about $1 million — to buy down the bond debt that has funded the county’s purchase of a new computer system that will integrate information between the treasurer’s and assessor’s offices. A potential use for the remaining funds, he suggested, could be programs to help homeowners avoid foreclosure or promote affordable housing.
Sullivan has also proposed adoption by the County Council of a taxpayer’s bill of rights, similar to that adopted by the state, that would establish a county-level taxpayer rights advocate or ombudsman. With budget decisions now expected to fill much of the council’s time until the end of the year, Sullivan said he doesn’t expect the proposal to be adopted soon, but hopes to work with the council on its adoption next year.
Toyer has served the Marysville community well as a representative who is prepared and who listens and is responsive to his constituents.
Some might allege that Sullivan is seeking only to lengthen his political career; instead, he has demonstrated a sincere interest in public service and in maintaining the office’s record of good governance and care with taxpayers’ money. His amiable personality, joined with the relationships he has developed with county officials and others throughout the county can be expected to strengthen the office’s public presence.
Voters should add the job of treasurer to Sullivan’s public service resume.