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'Clean up the process': Stark County Auditor addresses priorities for 2022

Karen Richard, Stark County Auditor and Treasurer, wears many hats and despite the growing responsibilities, said she is excited for challenges ahead.

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Karen Richard, Stark County Auditor.
Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press

DICKINSON — The auditor's office is the hub of every courthouse. In each of North Dakota's 53 counties, auditors and the professionals that work in their offices are responsible for balancing a growing list of responsibilities that range from keep up to date with changing methods of administration to monitoring legislative actions.

For Karen Richard, Stark County Auditor and Treasurer, the many hats she wears include those of the chief financial officer, the elections officer and the secretary to the county commission, — amid a broad range of other administrative duties.

The Belfield, N.D., native spoke with The Press on the three areas of focus her office has moving into the second quarter of 2022.

"The Auditor and Treasurer position is such a niche. There are only 53 of us in the state and that's it for county auditor's. You have a whole list of deadlines you have to meet and everything is your responsibility," Richard said of her role. "The job has grown so much and there have been growing pains. I love this job and I see this as something I could do for the next 30 years."

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Karen Richard, Stark County Auditor and Treasurer, highlighted three areas her offices will seek to improve in 2022.
Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press

"One of the biggest things, or my focus I should say, this coming year is to address a big gap in how we turn in budgets. All entities that we levy tax dollars for have to turn in budgets, and I think a lot of them are very small entities...there not big. They don't have the staff and most are volunteers and I want to streamline the process for them so they accommodating turning in a budget and getting used to it," Richard said. "I'm going to meet them once a month during the Emergency Management meeting and have their treasurer or whoever handles their budget sit down with me. I really want to clean up the process."

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Richard addressed how in the past, many entities were drafting their budget without any assistance or guidance from the auditor's offices — often resulting in the county being reactionary to budget rather than proactive in ensuring that budgets were completed with guidance aimed at helping entities remain on path to reach their financial goals.

Another area Richard said the county could improve and streamline the process for is Mill Levies, with an eye for more accurate calculations.

A mill levy is the "tax rate" that is applied to the assessed value of a property in the county. One mill is typically equal to one dollar per $1,000 dollars of assessed value. These levies consist of the local portions of taxes used to fund area services.

Richard's office is directly responsible for assisting townships and entities with budget preparation, which include Mill levies calculations for all taxing districts such as cities, school districts, townships, fire districts, water resource boards and park districts.

At the appropriate time, as determined by law, Richard and her office disburse tax funds collected for these political subdivisions and maintains records of county-owned property, obtained through tax proceedings and legal land descriptions for taxation purposes.

"Looking back, the biggest thing I noticed is that other counties had levies that weren't even numbers like ours were. So they would be like 3.58 or 4.65 for example, but historically, ours have always been even numbers," Richard said. "What I've realized is that in the past we would always round to the bigger number. So instead of 4.65, Stark County would round up to 5."

Richard added, "I want to clean that up, because we should have uneven numbers. If you submit to me a budget for $220,000 and I just round up and give you $232,000, that doesn't make any sense to me."

Finally, Richard said her last area of focus for 2022 will be to address the county's money management.

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"They did a great job before in making sure our county didn't go broke, because some counties don't have anything. I want that process to be a little more open and transparent in how we are handling our taxpayer's funds," Richard said. "We are not the saving account of the tax payer. We shouldn't be taking more than we need and that's the goal for me. To get back to that mindset."

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In her role as Commission Secretary, Richard is responsible for scheduling meetings, preparing agendas, processing correspondence and researching county records to provide commissioners with accurate information.
Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press

As Chief Financial Officer of Stark County, Richard oversees all fiscal action, ensuring that funds are used properly. Before the county commission approves payment of bills, the auditor checks all of the requests for payments.

The duties as CFO of the county include preparing the budget for the following year by compiling revenue, expense and levy estimates, computing market and taxable land valuation for taxation purposes and generating tax statements and lists.

Other tax-related duties include preparing property tax abstracts, personal property reports and homestead credit reports.

The auditor's office also handles all aspects of county payroll checks, related reports and benefits records. They are required to prepare year-end financial statements.

The duties don't end there, however, because the auditor is also the Election Administration official for Stark County. In that role, Richard administers the primary, general and special county, state and federal elections and is responsible for ensuring that all election workers are trained to prepare, distribute and tabulate ballots.

Further, the auditor is part of the board which canvasses (examines) election results before sending them to the Secretary of State's office to certifies the results.

As the list of responsibilities grow, so too does the county population — making it difficult for many counties to keep up with the sheer demands placed on the office.

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While the position of auditor is elected every four years, some counties have taken steps to address the growing need for specialists in the position by having the office become an appointed position by the commission.

In a unanimous October vote, Stark County Commissioners appointed acting auditor Karen Richard as the official auditor for the county and decided against the position becoming appointed.

The move came after two public commentary sessions in May sought to provide the commissioners with feedback from the community on whether the ongoing considerations to change the county auditor position from elected to appointment had public support — the public widely rejected the proposed change.

"It's a difficult job, with many, many responsibilities, but we are making real progress and I'm very enthusiastic about our path forward as a county," Richard said. "That said, the legislators need to seriously consider the growth that many counties have experienced in the last decade and the large list of responsibilities that we have as auditors. There has to be some sort of minimum qualification to run for this position in counties that have more than 30,000 people."

While Richard agrees the position is challenging, she says it's something that she was ready for, is challenged by and will continue to motivate her in getting up each morning and fighting for Stark County residents.

James B. Miller, Jr. is the Editor of The Dickinson Press in Dickinson, North Dakota. He strives to bring community-driven, professional and hyper-local focused news coverage of southwest North Dakota.
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