Vote me in to end the job!" says Ramon M. Brinkman, pledging he'll fire himself soon after he's elected Richmond's city treasurer.
Eunice Wilder's motto is "service with a smile," and she prides herself on being one of the only elected officials the public can drop in on and talk to anytime.
Meet these two unlikely adversaries in the race for city treasurer, one of the fall's most bizarre ballot battles.
Why would anyone care about the seldom-noticed office tucked away on the first floor of City Hall? Contrary to what the title suggests, the treasurer has nothing to do with controlling the city's coffers. Instead, the office's main duties are collecting state income taxes, assisting residents with tax forms, funneling revenue from the sheriff's office, and selling fishing and hunting licenses.
If elected, Brinkman plans to propose legislation to eliminate the office, saying its responsibilities duplicate those of other departments.
Will people care about his cause? "Oh yeah! Why wouldn't they?" says Brinkman, a former financial officer and investment banker. He says the office, which employs four people and has an annual budget of $173,000, is a waste of money.
Wilder, who's been the city treasurer for eight years, insists her duties are essential and her office is the last place left where Richmonders can get friendly, free assistance with state taxes.
The office's philosophy, in Wilder's words, is to ask "Did I lighten the burden in any way, did I replace a wrinkle with a laugh line, even for a moment?" She signs her office welcome memo "Your elected servant!"
Wilder points out that the state, not the city, pays her $71,000 salary and the salaries of her staff. If residents vote her out of office, she says, they gain nothing and "just lose a representative that is only here for them."
Brinkman disagrees. Tax money is tax money, he says, wherever it comes from.
He became interested in the position last July, he says, when someone told him the treasurer's department was "a damn useless office" that accomplished almost nothing. "I said, 'How can it possibly not do anything?'"
Brinkman went to the library and began researching the history of the office. Virginia's Constitution long ago established the position of treasurer for each city and county, he discovered, yet also allows the position to be eliminated through legislation. Since the chief duties of treasurer were passed on to the Department of Finance when the Richmond City Charter was revised in 1971, he says, the office is now obsolete.
As of Sept. 18, only 751 individual income tax forms had passed through the city Treasurer's Office in 2001. "What people did was send them in by mistake, obviously," Brinkman says.
What about hunting and fishing licenses? Yes, the Treasurer's Office sold about $2,400 in licenses last year, he says "which really tells me they ain't got nothing to do. They're looking for things to do."
Wilder acknowledges that there are times when she wishes a little more work came through the quiet office. Some years, she arranges with the city's director of finance to handle an additional 4,000 to 5,000 estimated-income-tax forms, Wilder says.
Brinkman, however, points out that the P.O. box listed for those who want to file estimated-tax forms is that of the Department of Finance, not Wilder's office.
Wilder bristles at Brinkman's allegations that the treasurer doesn't do much.
Although tax forms that arrive in her office are shuttled directly to the state Tax Department, Wilder says she takes the time to inspect them personally for errors. "We troubleshoot for the taxpayer," she says.
Most tax forms from city residents go to the Department of Finance. And ultimately, "we handle all taxes," says Dianne DeLoach, public-relations coordinator for the commonwealth's Department of Taxation. That includes customer service, processing and collections.
Wilder says she personally follows up on forms that pass through her office. And since only about 2,000 customers come to her office per year, "there is nobody who comes to this office that can't see me," she says. "You can't say that for any other level of government."
For example, on Oct. 22, a man came into her office desperate to get the garnishment taken off his wages. It had cost him $540, yet he didn't even know how much he owed or why. With some research, Wilder says, she found that he'd never filed his 1997 state tax form and when she called the Department of Taxation it turned out he only owed $15.
Incidents like this happen all the time, Wilder says. Although help is also available through telephone, Internet and tax offices, she maintains that no one else can provide attentive assistance like she can.
She doesn't advertise. People find their way to her by word of mouth or just by chance. Wilder says if re-elected, she'd try to make herself more visible but "realistically," she says, "I couldn't handle the whole city."
Neither candidate is a politician. Neither has solicited donations. Their campaigns bring new meaning to the term "grass roots."
Brinkman is relying on the oddity of his slogan to carry the election. It's "a helluva lot different from any platform I've ever seen," he says cheerfully. His campaign manager is his wife, Deena, who helps him pass out homemade flyers downtown and at events like High on the Hog.
Wilder laughs when asked about her campaign strategy. She never expected to face an opponent, she says, let alone counter his claims that her job is unnecessary.
Did she send out letters? "I didn't feel like I should use office stuff to do this," she says.
Advertisements? She points to a small announcement about services at the Treasurer's Office that appeared in the annual "Utility Talk" newsletter, a one-page purple-and-teal flyer that Richmonders receive with their utility bills. Newsweek it ain't. But despite her lack of visibility, Wilder's still optimistic about her chances, counting on the Democratic endorsement and her years of experience.
Both candidates have survival plans should things not go as they expect. Brinkman wrote in a press release: "Should the City unexpectedly reverse course and return duties to the Treasurer, Brinkman is highly qualified to perform them."
And Wilder's statement: "If the office is to be dismantled, I am as qualified and perhaps more so, to do so." Still, she says, "I don't feel like you can run against an office and expect to be paid to do it." The winner will receive four years' salary, whether or not the position continues.
Brinkman's quick to respond that he doesn't need the money, he just thinks it would be easier to get rid of the title if he's holding it.
Grinning, he says, "Whatever happens on November 6, I'll still be working on November 7."
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