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County treasurer is facing three challengers

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

An office with a history of making headlines is once again attracting attention – this time from a crowd of people looking to run it.

Four Democrats are competing to spend the next four years as Bernalillo County treasurer, a field that includes two people who have held the job already, one who previously worked inside the Treasurer’s Office and a former state legislator.

In her bid for a second term, incumbent Treasurer Nancy Bearce is facing former County Treasurer Patrick Padilla, longtime county employee Donny Daniels and retired educator and former state Sen. Bernadette Sanchez.

There are no Republicans running for the job.

The county treasurer collects and distributes property taxes – over $700 million per year – and manages, with the help of outside advisers, a county investment portfolio worth about $400 million.

Investigations, audits and lawsuits have brought attention to the office.

The state Securities Division and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission launched investigations under Bearce’s predecessor, Manny Ortiz.

Bernalillo County commissioners and auditors also blasted the investment strategy in place under Ortiz and Padilla, who was treasurer from 2005 to 2012 and stayed on temporarily as Ortiz’s investment officer. Critics alleged the office put too much money in long-term investments and left little for immediate needs, forcing a 2014 portfolio restructuring that included selling investments at a $17 million loss to avoid possible additional damage.

Padilla said at the time that the county made $86 million in investment income during his two consecutive terms.

He contends that the sale was an unnecessary and costly mistake and that the county could have earned money by holding off.

He is now pursuing what would be his fifth term as treasurer. He also served two two-year terms from 1989 to 1992, after which he was indicted – but acquitted by a jury on all charges – over allegations of falsifying investment records and misusing public money.

Padilla told the Journal he feels compelled to run again for treasurer because the county is facing “immense” economic challenges.

“I’m not done trying to help taxpayers,” he said in written answers to Journal questions.

Padilla – who tried to reclaim the office in 2016 and was disqualified from a 2014 state treasurer bid because he didn’t collect enough petition signatures – said one of his goals is pushing state lawmakers for a property tax credit for those who live in their homes for more than 15 years.

Padilla, who has previously advocated for restoring independence to the county treasurer, said he also wants to end the county’s contract with the outside investment adviser brought on to advise the office and the county’s Board of Finance.

“This county has a ‘no’ mindset,” he said. “My mindset is ‘Let’s see how we can get it done.’ ”

Bearce said she has welcomed input from various sources, such as the investment advisory committee, which has members from county government and the public.

She said she believes that since taking office in 2017, she has restored public trust in a position that has frequently drawn criticism. The treasurer’s website lists the banks and advisers the office is using, the office is routinely passing audits and Bearce works to educate the public about her role, she said.

“I really had to, like they say, turn on that light and open the door and let that light in so we could really look at what the Treasurer’s Office does, and that’s been really fun,” she said.

Bearce said she has tried to approach tax collection fairly and follow up on delinquent accounts across the spectrum – such as on livestock and business equipment – instead of focusing only on those tied to buildings and land.

“There were millions (of dollars) that was sitting there like that, and I thought, ‘That’s not fair. That’s not fair to the people who are paying, and it’s not fair to the people who aren’t,’ ” she said.

Although the race’s two other candidates have not been treasurer before, they say they have applicable experience.

Sanchez, who served in the state Senate from 2001 to -2012, has been responsible for making decisions about public money; as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, she said, she was involved in balancing the state’s then-$6 billion operating budget.

While in the Legislature, Sanchez sponsored legislation that allowed New Mexicans to choose a monthly property tax prepayment option instead of making the typical larger semiannual payments. She said the option helps people on fixed income.

She said she wants to do more to promote that option and that she would also use the Treasurer’s Office as a platform to educate the public, including financial literacy classes for high schoolers.

She said she would bring greater transparency to the Treasurer’s Office and make information more accessible.

“I think most of all for the Treasurer’s Office you want somebody that’s ethical and trustworthy and honest, because what you’re doing is handling taxpayers’ money, distributing it and investing it and protecting it,” she said.

Daniels would not have to move far if elected. He works for the county’s Information Technology Department, but he said he is particularly interested in getting back to the Treasurer’s Office, where he spent 14 years. He worked his way up from mail processor to taxpayer services manager before taking a different county position in 2009.

He has no professional investment management experience, but he said he brings a customer service background and some technical expertise, because he did the initial configuration for the treasurer’s cashiering system.

He sees potential efficiencies for the county, he said, such as using the treasurer’s staff to accept payments for other county departments, such as planning and zoning.

Daniels has never run for public office before but said he decided to seize this opportunity.

“I’m at the end of my work period; I’m getting ready to retire within the next four to five years, and I had some employees and co-workers who have encouraged me over the last few years to run as treasurer,” he said. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to get back in.”

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