In Lancaster County election, the incumbent treasurer is the big issue

Lancaster County Treasurer's Office. (Enhanced photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Lancaster County Treasurer's Office. (Enhanced photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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April 26, 2018 - 6:45am

The most competitive local race in the Nebraska primary election next month is for the treasurer of Lancaster County.



THE REPUBLICANS

Andy Stebbing

Campaign website:
https://www.andystebbing.com/

Matt Schulte

Campaign website:
http://www.voteschulte.com/

Allen Simpson

Campaign website:
https://www.allensimpsonfortreasurer.com/


 

Three Republicans and two Democrats want the office.

The biggest issue is the incumbent.

Treasurer Andy Stebbing is accused by the Nebraska attorney general of illegally selling a couple of cars and not paying taxes on the proceeds.

Even with a trial on the horizon, Stebbing insists he can survive for another term.

Meanwhile he’s been running a typical handshake and yard sign campaign. At a casual drop by fundraiser at a bar in Hallam, he was joined by soon-to-be wife Erika Baehr while greeting supporters among the pool tables.

Everybody knows about the case against Stebbing, but nobody talks about it here.

“People like what I have done (serving as treasurer) and they think I am innocent of these charges,” Stebbing said later.

He concedes he should have handled the transactions more professionally.

“I do. Fair enough,” he said. “Did I commit any felonies? No. Should I be thrown out of office? No."

He believes “most people in Lancaster County trust me and are comfortable voting me back into office.”

Others suggested he should leave the office voluntarily. The chair of the Lancaster County Board suggested he resign and an Omaha World-Herald editorial suggested he step aside.

In an unusual political maneuver, other Republicans in the county set out to recruit opponents.

Allen Simpson, retired from the Air National Guard, hadn’t considered elected office until “some people approached me about running for the office because they knew about my military background and managing taxpayer dollars.”

A newcomer to elected office, Simpson touts his budget-keeping experience as a commander and comptroller for the Nebraska Air National Guard.

“I like to tell people I was basically the CFO for the finance office,” he explained. “I managed anywhere from 50 to 100 million dollars on an annual basis.”

Now retired and working as a part-time teacher, Simpson says he would bring a military philosophy of doing more with less.

“How did we do that?” he asked the reporter. “We did that by innovation. Doing things more efficiently and that’s what I’d like to bring to the treasurer’s office.”

The most important question driving his operational approach is “how can we save taxpayer’s dollars?”

If elected, Simpson would assess the current operation and talk with employees to see what changes could be priorities.

“Efficiency and innovation is what we have to look at and continue to,” Simpson said. “If we aren’t looking for those ways to improve we are falling behind.”


THE DEMOCRATS

Andrew Stock

Stock worked as a public defender in Douglas County before teaching political science at Central Community College. He also tried his had at screenwriting for movies for a time. Top among his campaign issues is a proposal to lower or eliminate credit card fees collected doing business with the treasurer’s office so as to “stop punishing residents who do their DMV business online.” Stock also claims he will not take any campaign donations from businesses or political action committees.

Campaign website:
https://andrewstock.org

Rachel Garver

Working in the student accounts office the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Garver was responsible for millions of dollars-worth of billings. She has been active in Democratic Party politics. It would be her first try for elected office. She promises to “research best practices and use current technology to maximize taxpayers’ resources and streamline services including the antiquated way property tax sales are handled.”

Campaign website:
https://www.rachelfortreasurer.com


 

Lincoln School Board member Matt Schulte shared a similar story about being recruited. Last fall, Schulte said he “had a couple of other elected officials come to me” noting his business experience. Because he’d served on the school board, he says they told him “you would be a good fit for this.”

Schulte was elected to the LPS board in 2013. He’s come to believe he’s better suited for an administrative role in county government. He maintains the experience makes him a good fit for the county job.

“I have a small business that does bookkeeping for non-profits,” he explained, “as well being on the school board where we have the largest government budget in the county” which he estimates at $424 million.

“I don’t think there’s much more you could do to be qualified for this role.”

He suggests it’s time to consider an additional location for licenses and plates, or perhaps self-serve kiosks for taxpayer business.

“I’ve heard it said the Lancaster County treasurer’s office is the face of the county. So it’s important to have a well-run office with good customer satisfaction and short lines.”

Talking in a coffee shop near his office, Schulte echoed the theme most often cited by all of the candidates opposing Stebbing.

“Character matters in leadership,” he said. Pressed for why it was such an issue for the incumbent, Schulte took a while to collect his thoughts.

“It’s always difficult to address that without being too disparaging.”

Even if the felony charges are not true, Schulte believes the process for titling cars used by Stebbing for his personal transactions were avoidable mistakes.

“These are things the treasurer should know. How to file proper bills of sale and things like that. There’s some serious character questions we have."

He and Simpson agree, beyond the legal issues, there are several other ethical red flags raised by Stebbing’s conduct.

“Questionable” travel mileage reimbursements paid out to Stebbing through his treasurer’s office funds were flagged by the State Auditor last year. A letter called them “unreasonable or not supported based on the locations of travel stated on the expense forms.”

He has since reimbursed the county for the expenses and told the Lincoln Journal-Star he should have been more careful in his record keeping.

Opponent Simpson felt Stebbing's practice of prominently featuring his photo on an informational insert sent to taxpayers crossed an ethical line. Simpson felt the practice amounts to using taxpayer money to benefit the incumbent treasurer’s political campaigns.

“I wouldn’t send out anything that is campaign related in your property tax statements,” Simpson said. “If that means taking that out and putting it online, than that’s what we’re going to do.”

He is also bothered by another common practice of certain elected officials: adding large signage to buildings and office space naming the office holder.

Stebbing calls such criticisms “ridiculous.”

“I am the county treasurer,” he said, sounding a bit exasperated.

He insists photos and signage are no different than practices used in dozens of other elected offices, including the fellow Republican serving as treasurer of the State of Nebraska.

“I mean, look no further than Don Stenberg,” Stebbing said. “I mean, his picture is all over everything!”

Schulte says there are bad choices being made.

We absolutely need a treasurer we can trust,” Schulte said. “We need someone who we are not questioning whether they are making the most ethical decision in every area of their life.”

While both of Stebbing’s opponents say there are improvements to be made in operations of the treasurer’s office, it’s notable that both tend not to criticize day-to-day operations and quality of customer service.

When Simpson was asked how he felt as a customer standing in line to get his license renewed on the motor vehicle side of the treasurer’s office he conceded “there’s been a lot of improvements in those lines.”

Schulte says when he stood in line they “weren’t particularly long” and later “did a transaction online and the systems seem to be working.”

Stebbing argues he deserves the credit for making that happen and saving money for taxpayers in the process.

“Most of the time people pop in and take care of their business and they are met with respect and greeted with a smile,” Stebbing said. “That is what public service at the government level is about and that’s what I like doing.”

He points with pride at the budget savings he’s incorporated since taking office. (His website claims it amounts to $5 million.) There is more business being done by citizens online which, he claims, has saved in both payroll for fewer employees to staff the office to a reduction in the number of desk phones needed to answer calls.

“People like working for me,” he boasted. “The whole culture has changed. They enjoy coming to work.”

While enjoying meeting people, Stebbing doesn’t attend many Republican Party functions these days. He says his biggest disappointment is with state and local party leadership.

“Republicans don’t stand by their own,” Stebbing said. “People surround themselves with you when you are the ‘go-to guy’ and things are going good. But boy. One mishap. They turn on you. They run. When the panic is over they come back. When you are popular again. Happens a lot.”

The cloud over Stebbing won’t lift soon.

He had hoped for a jury trial next month. Delays in court will likely push it back to late summer.

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