By Ralph Echtinaw
County commissioners caviled last month over the manner in which Treasurer Terri Ball maintained 13 foreclosed properties last summer, including the hiring of her son-in-law to do the work.
Commissioners had a problem with the amounts paid for weekly grass cuttings at 12 properties and especially for the amounts paid to remove rubbish from three houses.
Contacted by email Thursday, Ball invited this reporter to her office that afternoon for a sit down. She provided documentation to justify her actions.
On her son-in-law Andrew Heilig, of St. Louis, Ball said, “He’s very honest and hardworking. I can depend on him to be my second set of eyes out there. If a door’s open, a windows cracked, I need to know about it. And if I hire one company they’re not going to tell me that. It’s hard to find people to do anything. In this environment everybody’s busy. I feel lucky that he agreed to do this, because it’s not a fun job.”
No bid contract
Ball hired Heilig without a bidding process but makes a case for her right to do so, citing a portion of the state government’s General Property Tax Act: “If a delinquent tax revolving fund is established, the county treasurer shall be the agent for the county… and without further action by the county board of commissioners may enter into contracts with other municipalities, this state, or private persons, firms or corporations in connection with any transaction relating to the fund.”
That’s not without precedent, as Ball’s predecessor, Michelle Thomas, employed Ethan Thomas (the son of her cousin) to do the same sort of work as recently as 2019. (Invoice available upon request.)
Heilig’s work log shows that he charged $50 each to cut grass at nine properties and $100 each to cut grass at three properties. The log says he cut grass weekly from May through August. Ball said “the properties were regularly monitored by my office staff and myself” to ensure that the work was done.
Three properties required an unrecorded number of hours to remove debris. That would be $2,500 for 216 North New Street in Ashley, $2,500 for 115 East Robinson in Perrinton and $1,600 for 11406 Third Street in Riverdale. Rubbish bins were rented for all three properties and will be paid for separately by the treasurer’s office, Ball said.
All told, Heilig received $3,826 on June 6, $2,899 on June 30, $1,600 on July 8, $2,920 on July 20 and $8,210 on Aug. 17 for a total of $19,455. “It’s not an outrageous price for having three homes cleaned up and mowing once a week,” Ball said.
The county recouped that money when all but one of the properties were sold by on-line auction on Aug. 24. The new owners paid not only back taxes (for which the properties were seized) but also the money paid to Heilig.
The concern of county commissioners for Ball’s handling of property maintenance resulted in an Aug. 18 memo from County Administrator Tracey Cordes to Ball.
“A couple of commissioners have raised questions about the service you have retained for mowing lawns and clean-ups of foreclosed properties,” Cordes wrote. “At least one commissioner has driven by these properties on numerous occasions and has viewed invoices submitted for the work. They do not seem to line up.”
Cordes goes on to say that, placing a family member “under your direct or general supervision… creates an economic relationship, all in violation of Section 9, p. 11 of the Non-Economic Personnel Manual.”
Cordes asked Ball if she used a competitive bidding process to select the recipient for this work. “If you have not awarded these jobs subject to a competitive process, it is nepotism for you to have given this work to your family member,” she wrote.
Cordes goes on to ask if there is a contract or fee schedule memorializing this economic relationship.
Ball showed the contract to this reporter Thursday. It’s dated April 23 and signed by Ball and Heilig. However, there is no mention of fees in the contract. Regarding the properties that needed rubbish removal, Ball said she inspected each property personally along with Heilig and set prices at that time.
From the Cordes memo: “Setting aside the optics of this situation for a moment, a breach of the county purchasing policy and the assignment of work to a family member is ripe for an audit finding.”
“Optics are not really important to me, Ball said Thursday. “Doing things the way they should be done. That’s what’s important to me. Optics (are) just how things appear to be. I think it’s more important that things are done in the right way. As you know, you don’t get what you pay for anymore. This was the best way I felt to do it. And I know I can trust (Heilig). So that’s who I went with.”
“There’s a lot going on out there with foreclosed homes,” Ball continued. “And the people who don’t work in here on a daily basis don’t understand. The county has liability because (the property is) in the county’s name for a few months before the sale. If somebody goes in there and gets hurt, or dies, or overdoses, or whatever; Who’s responsibility is that? It’s us. Having somebody out there that’s my second set of eyes is more important than anybody thinks. That’s number one.”
As for alarmed commissioners, Ball said that none of them came to see her or phoned her. “I appreciate the questions, but why don’t they call me? We’re supposed to be co-employers. If you have a question why don’t you call me or knock on my door?”
Ball won the 2020 Republican primary for treasurer with 2,334 votes. Finishing second and third were Kelly King (1,950 votes) and Michelle Thomas (1,812 votes). Ball will be up for re-election in 2024.
The single property that didn’t sell in the Aug. 24 auction (217 E. Fulton in Pompeii) will be auctioned on Oct. 28. Ball uses the Tax-Sale.info web site to conduct property auctions.