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Tense meeting between commission, treasurer leaves standoff intact

Aug 2, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Talks Tuesday between Fremont County Treasurer Scott Harnsberger and the Fremont County Commission illustrated a relationship that has grown increasingly caustic.

Earlier this year, commissioners demanded that the elected official quit giving bonuses to his employees.

When he defied them, they cut roughly $20,000 from his budget.

Harnsberger closed the Fremont County Clerk's office in Riverton and restored full compensation to his employees by nixing his bonus program, instead raising employee salaries by a comparable amount.

Tense

During Tuesday's fiery half hour debate, both Harnsberger and commissioners accused each other of being publicly disingenuous. Commissioner Clarence Thomas even, for the first time, suggested Harnsberger's 25-year tenure should come to an end.

"I think you need to look at your position and why you still want to be county treasurer," Thomas said. "I think the community wants to know why you still want to be county treasurer."

The meeting ended with raised voices and only more tension. Both sides walked away after reaching what commission chairman Travis Becker called "an end with no resolution."

Bonuses

When commissioners first expressed their intent to eliminate bonus funding this spring, Harnsberger indicated he would instead cut part-time workers and close his office during the lunch hour.

He did reduce the number of employees through attrition but hasn't reduced office hours.

"I really feel you've misled us - and not only that, I feel you've misled the public," Becker said.

Since early in his tenure, Harnsberger has paid bonuses to his employees in order to, as he put it, improve job performance.

The allocations for such bonuses, he's argued, have been accrued only in lieu of standard salary increases and have become an expected portion of his employees' total compensation.

Becker and other commissioners have not been sympathetic to that explanation, in turn arguing that Harnsberger's employees get paid more than other comparable employees in the county.

Commissioners have also said such bonuses should be considered a luxury during a time of deficit spending.

But Harnsberger said that argument was insincere and implied Becker was merely using the local economic downturn as an excuse to back Becker's ideological opposition to bonuses.

"You've disagreed with the bonuses thing since you were on the commission," Harnsberger pointedly said to Becker. "When we were flush, you disagreed with it."

Harnsberger said he still believes in his bonus strategy and decided to convert that money to standard salaries only in hopes of easing the controversy.

"I'm tired of dealing with it," he said.

To nix the bonuses altogether, he added, would be uniquely punitive to his workers.

"They're the only employees in the county that got a compensation cut; it was clearly unfair," he said. "These are real people. They have to pay babysitters."

Clerk

Last month, the county clerk's office in Riverton closed after Harnsberger said he no longer would accept receipts from that office.

Commissioners have urged him to reopen the facility, but he characterized the two-office setup as "a very inefficient way to do motor vehicle registration and property taxes."

"I've told you over and over, when someone calls my office, it takes time for someone on my staff to help the person in Riverton," Harnsberger told commissioners.

For a second time Tuesday, Becker said Harnsberger's decision-making defense was insincere. The real reason for the office's closure, Becker believes, was retribution for the board's attitude toward Harnsberger's leadership.

"You've left most of this county in a lurch because you're really ticked off at this board -- me in particular," Becker said.

After the Riverton office's closure, county prosecutor Tom Majdic announced he plans to run for treasurer in 2018, promising to restore the Riverton location if elected.

"I think that is definitely necessary," he said. "More than half our population lives on (that) side of the county. That would be something I would put time and effort into re-establishing."

Majdic lives in Lander but said the bulk of his family is in Riverton.

While the end of Harnsberger's tenure would mean a loss in some institutional knowledge, Majdic said he's been in contact with county treasurers across Wyoming who have agreed to "impart their knowledge."

"The knowledge can be obtained," Majdic said. "It's just going to take someone who wants to learn it."

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2017-10-19

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