Township treasurers rake in tax money at home, not at work

Watchdog follows tax payer money to private homes

GRANT TOWNSHIP, MICH. - The mailboxes at some township halls across West Michigan are empty as the deadline passes for people to pay their winter property tax bills.  But it's not because people aren't paying their taxes.

In Grant Township, the checks taxpayers write to pay their property taxes go to a different mailbox.  A mailbox at the private residence of the township's treasurer.

"I am not the only township treasurer doing it his way," Grant Township treasurer Edith Elsenheimer said. 

Most taxpayers probably don't look at where their check is going because most would expect it to go to city or township halls.  That's not the case in many rural areas in Michigan.

This year and every year for the last 17 years, property tax payments have been sent to Elsenheimer's house. The treasurer says about 75 percent of people pay through the U.S. Mail. 

So what happens when the the mail goes to the wrong house?

"That's going to happen at some point in time but my neighbors know I collect the taxes so it's brought back to me," Elsenheimer said.

Elsenheimer says being treasurer is a part-time job and and opening her home and mailbox in a rural area is truly about having open government.  But there are those who could see how this arrangement could lead to big issues and a lack of checks and balances.

"I never had a really big problem at all," Elsenheimer said.  "I always balance with (Newaygo) County."

Newaygo County Treasurer Holly Moon says she's been in office for more than a decade and has more than a dozen clerks raking in taxpayer checks at home throughout the county.  She says there's never been an issue with it.

"I feel the constituents receive better service by these folks working out of their homes because they're there welcoming them in," Moon said. 

Moon says she visits every township and city annually and believes workers do a good job, even if it's out of their own homes.  She says treasurers successfully keep up with their own mail and the township's mail.

"When they're going to their mailbox and picking up their tax bills, they're going to bring those right into the house and take care of those," Moon said. "All the years I have been here I have never had a complaint of someone losing a tax payment."

Rural townships often choose this arrangment because there isn't proper office space at the township hall.  There are concerns in some of those places, the money couldn't be kept in a safe place and Moon says often times it would be safer for treasurers to do the work at home.
 
That's not the case in Grant Township where the township hall has office space and the proper security in place.

Elsenheimer promised to take a second look at the issue in light of our questioning.

"I have never considered it a burden because I never had a problem," Elsenheimer said. "If the board wants me to have the mail come here (to the township hall), I would be glad to do it."

State leaders have told us they do have concerns about treasurers handling public money outside of a public facility but changing laws could be difficult considering some townships have little resources to make the necessary changes.

Even those who advocate for townships and cities say this situation of taxpayers mailing tax checks to private homes is far from an ideal situation but they believe there are checks and balance in places to prevent theft.

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Have an issue or problem the Watchdog Team should investigate? Email watchdog@wzzm13.com.

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