CHRISTIANSBURG — Next month’s election for Montgomery County treasurer offers voters a choice between decades of experience and a self-described “fresh face” — and a contest that scrambles some of the usual lines of party politics.
The Republican candidate is Helen St. Clair, who is presently interim treasurer after 15 years as chief deputy treasurer and 35 total years working for the Montgomery County office. In her campaigning, St. Clair highlights the endorsement of a Democrat: Richard Shelton, the county’s previous treasurer, who retired this year after tapping St. Clair to complete his fourth term.
Hoping to unseat St. Clair is Democrat James “Tay” Taylor, a businessman who four years ago made an unsuccessful bid to be the county’s commissioner of the revenue, campaigning as a Republican.
It’s a race with little in the way of a standout issue.
St. Clair points to her experience doing every job in the office, and to the 98 percent tax collection rate that she said the county achieved for the past fiscal year. In her nine months as treasurer, St. Clair said, she took in about $5 million in delinquent taxes, about $1.7 million more than during the same time period a year earlier.
“My campaign strategy is to collect the taxes,” St. Clair said during an interview last week — adding that for her, the big picture is that better collections benefits taxpayers. “If everyone pays their fair share, it does keep tax rates lower,” St. Clair said.
In a separate interview, Taylor, a principal in Taylor Office Supply and Trinity Property Management, according to his campaign forms, said that he is seeking public service partly to give voters a choice.
“The people of the county sometimes feel like maybe you need some fresh faces in there,” Taylor said.
Taylor listed two specific points he hoped to pursue if elected. First, he wanted to make it possible for residents to use credit cards to pay taxes and the fees for licenses at the treasurer’s office. Presently residents can only use cards if they pay online, and there is an additional fee.
St. Clair said that using cards in the treasurer’s office was an option that was available some years ago, but was stopped after the bank that the county dealt with quit absorbing the transaction costs. The county now contracts with an outside company to handle the online credit card use and attendant security concerns, St. Clair said.
She said that residents who want to pay with cards at the treasurer’s office can use a special kiosk there that was set up to let customers go online and make the payment.
Taylor’s second goal was to get a bit more interest for the county’s deposits, a hot topic a year or so ago when Shelton and then-Board of Supervisors Chairman Chris Tuck would spar about it at meetings, but something that’s attracted much less notice during St. Clair’s nine months as treasurer.
At a League of Women Voters candidate forum Thursday, Taylor said he hoped to squeeze another quarter of a percentage point of interest from the county’s banking agreement, saying it would add about $64,000 per year to the county’s revenues.
In an interview before the forum, Taylor said, “Everybody wants more money, and even a quarter point spread out over a number of years would be a significant amount of money.”
St. Clair said that before Shelton left, he renegotiated the county’s banking agreement and obtained an increase in interest to 2.1 percent, which raised a bit more than $1 million for the county during the past fiscal year. St. Clair said that if elected, she would regularly review the county’s banking agreement and seek the best possible interest rate — and also be careful to balance the interest rate against fees for wire transfers, scanning and other services that are part of the county’s banking. It could be a mistake to negotiate a higher interest rate if it was offset by higher fees, St. Clair said.
Asked at the candidate forum how they would improve the openness of the office, Taylor talked about forming a social group that would bring in speakers to illustrate the county’s diversity by discussing “why they eat the food they eat … wear the clothes they wear.”
“If you don’t get out and learn, you’re falling way behind in the culture department,” Taylor said.
St. Clair said that for her, quality customer service at the front desk of the treasurer’s office was the first step toward openness, and that she was always ready to meet with residents in her office.
“Your concerns are my concerns. I welcome you to stop by,” she said.
Both candidates downplayed the role of political parties in their race.
St. Clair said the treasurer’s job is about effectively carrying out a basic government function and had nothing to do with partisanship. “I don’t think that politics should play a part,” St. Clair said.
She said that when a newly elected Shelton asked her to be his chief deputy, she said that she would not switch parties and he replied that she did not have to. For 15 years, they worked well together, with St. Clair staying neutral each time Shelton ran for re-election, she said.
Taylor declined to say much about his switch in political parties since his run four years ago, saying only that “times change and people change.”
Taylor did say that it was local, not national politics that drove his decision. County Democrats are “just a group of people I feel comfortable with,” Taylor said.