Unusual political paths for both men vying for county treasurer

This year’s race for Montgomery County treasurer features two candidates who have both taken unusual political paths to the ballot.

Incumbent Democrat Russ Joseph has held two county positions but never won an election. He was appointed by the party to the treasurer post last year to replace Carolyn Rice after she was elected county commissioner. Prior to that, he was the party-appointed Montgomery County clerk of courts until he lost his election bid in 2018 to Republican Mike Foley.

Republican challenger John McManus served on the Dayton school board from 2016 to 2020, and in 2018 unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat for the Ohio House of Representatives. He was hired by Foley last year as chief of the clerk of courts legal division and says he switched parties because he was approached by current and former Republican officials to run for treasurer.

The county treasurer is responsible for collecting property taxes and managing the county’s investments, and sits on the Montgomery County land bank board. The job pays $90,649 a year.

Joseph has a clear fundraising edge. Campaign finance reports filed in June said Joseph had $42,658 on hand after the primary versus $60 for McManus.

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The Dayton Daily News asked both candidates a series of questions about why voters should elect them. Here are their responses.

Q: What is the biggest challenge currently facing the Montgomery County Treasurer’s Office?

Joseph: My office is focused on collecting every tax dollar owed to our local communities during this difficult time. Our local schools, parks, libraries and critical human services are funded by property taxes. Our biggest challenge is making sure we’re doing everything we can to fund these critical services. And we’ve been very successful. I’ve now overseen two years of tax collection, and they’ve been the most successful two collections in the last 20 years.

McManus: The biggest challenge currently facing the treasurer’s office is a lack of trust from the community. I’ve spoken with so many residents who feel they are being taxed out of their homes. This fear has only heightened after the most recent home revaluation with the news that homeowners will have to pay even higher property taxes next year. Montgomery County residents are already amongst the very highest taxed in the state, and now we’re told to get ready for more in the middle of a pandemic and economic recession. The treasurer is the county’s chief tax collector, and the treasurer should take a leading role in providing information and clarity around the county’s absurdly high tax rate.

Q: What specific changes or initiatives have you made/should be made to improve the treasurer’s office?

McManus: I’d like to see measurable steps taken to maximize transparency so that residents in Montgomery County have all the information they need to learn about what tax burdens they are living under and how their tax money is being spent. If Montgomery County residents are going to be taxed at such a high rate compared to citizens in other counties, we at least deserve to know where our money is going. As a member of the Dayton Board of Education, I fought against property tax increase proposals because I saw from the inside how money was being spent at Dayton Public Schools. It wasn’t always being spent responsibly. I had the ability to follow the money because of my position, but residents all across this county need to be given the same opportunities to see how their government is spending their money.

Joseph: When I came into office, I saw the need to reduce the long lines that taxpayers had to endure near tax due dates, so I implemented a fast-pay line for taxpayers paying by check. This made it easier for all our taxpayers to pay their taxes. This summer we launched a new user friendly payment website that makes it easier for taxpayers to pay their taxes and get on with their life. Not only was this new site user friendly, but it also allowed us to offer lower fees for those paying by debit card, credit card or e-check. Thanks to these advances, we doubled the number of online payments this summer, leading to efficiencies in the office with fewer paper checks to manually process. As chief investment officer for the county, I updated our investment practices and increased our investment income by 37% last year. These are real dollars that can be invested back into our community. I increased our entire portfolio to over $580 million dollars. These are funds that if used wisely, can help get our community through this current economic crisis.

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Q: What, if anything, should be done to improve property tax collection?

Joseph: The changes that I’ve made so far have shown incredible results. I’ve overseen two years of tax collection, and they’ve been our best collections in 20 years. We have collected over 100% of the current charges both years, when you include delinquent collections. We will continue to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to collect every tax dollar due to our community.

McManus: The most important job of the treasurer is to effectively collect property taxes so that our local governments and school districts can function. If the treasurer fails in this duty, taxpayers go without essential public services. At the same time, I would like to see a concerted effort for county government to work together to lower the unreasonably high tax rate in Montgomery County. I think the treasurer, as the county’s tax collector, should be a leader in that effort. It would undoubtedly be a challenge, but residents of this county need relief.

Q: What, if anything, should be done to improve the county’s investment portfolio?

McManus: In uncertain economic times, it’s especially important that the investment of public funds be done in a manner in which risk is minimized. If we truly are on the verge of a recession, it’s no time to be playing fast and loose with public dollars. The treasurer should see to it that the investment principal is safeguarded while maintaining adequate flexibility to meet the needs of county government. A healthy return on investment is always ideal, but prudence and caution are even more important in the near future.

Joseph: Our investment portfolio is one of the strongest in Ohio. As treasurer, I’ve increased our investment income by 37% and grown our portfolio to over $580 million. Our investment options are severely limited by state law to safeguard our treasury. Even in this low interest rate environment however, we are earning a 3% return on our investments this year, more than a full percentage point above our benchmark. We’ll continue to make the adjustments necessary to grow our portfolio in the safest possible manner for our taxpayers.

Q: Why are you a better choice for this position than your opponent?

Joseph: My experience as treasurer, as well as my 20 years of experience in local government administration makes me the best choice to continue serving as treasurer. I know how to get results and effectively serve the people of Montgomery County. My office fights to collect every possible tax dollar owed our community, while realizing there are real people with real lives behind every parcel of property. We will always work with anyone who is having trouble, to help them get back on track. The vast majority of taxpayers want to do the right thing, and we’re here to help them in any way we can.

McManus: The treasurer of any organization, whether it be a corporation, a school district or a county government, should be someone with a degree of independence. A treasurer, the person charged with safeguarding funds, is someone who is meant to be a check and balance on others. I think I’m better suited to that role. During my term on the Dayton Board of Education, that was the role I took on and I valued it thoroughly. When I saw problems, especially those involving taxpayer dollars, I spoke out publicly and without hesitation. It made a lot of very powerful people angry, but I stood firm for taxpayers. Montgomery County government needs that same voice. We need a taxpayer watchdog who is dedicated to holding government accountable. That is the treasurer that I will be for Montgomery County.

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Q: Is there anything the county treasurer can do to help people impacted by issues such as the Memorial Day tornadoes and coronavirus?

McManus: In the same year that Montgomery County residents endured natural disasters and a pandemic, most homeowners received a letter in the mail informing them that they will have to pay even higher taxes next year. When I’m out speaking with residents, that’s what I hear about the most. This has been a debilitating year for so many in terms of household finances, and Montgomery County’s ever-growing rate of taxation is taking a toll on families trying to stay in their homes and make ends meet. I would like to see a concerted effort for county government to work together to lower the unreasonably high tax rate in Montgomery County. Every tax affecting Montgomery County residents should be on the table.

Joseph: When the tornadoes hit last year, I knew we had to help our neighbors who were not only facing major destruction to their homes, but would within weeks, if we hadn’t acted, receive a property tax bill to pay for a home that may not even exist anymore. So, we went to work with the prosecutor’s office and the auditor’s office and discovered a little-used provision in the Ohio Revised Code that would allow tornado victims to delay paying their property taxes for a year so they could focus on rebuilding their lives. In addition, we worked with the auditor’s office to make sure tornado affected property owners filled out the correct paperwork to have their property values reduced for the following tax years. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck this spring, we knew we had to act again. With approval from the state tax commissioner, we delayed our summer property tax due date by a month for all taxpayers, to give everyone more time to pay. We also offered payment plans for those most affected.

Q: Is there anything the county treasurer can do to assist people struggling to pay property taxes or facing foreclosure in the currently unsteady economy?

Joseph: While state law does not permit the treasurer to reduce the amount of taxes owed, we do have flexibility in giving people options on how to pay during a crisis. For example, for the second-half property taxes due this summer, Auditor Karl Keith and I jointly petitioned the state tax commissioner to delay the due date by a month to give all our taxpayers more time to pay. In addition, we provided payment plans for those who were severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For those struggling to pay their taxes, I urge them to call or visit my office so that we can work out a payment arrangement that works for their situation. We also offer a monthly prepayment program that allows taxpayers to plan their tax payments as a part of their monthly budget, instead of receiving two large tax bills every year. Many property owners, especially seniors and others on fixed incomes, take advantage of this program.

McManus: Yes, the treasurer’s office has the capability to work with homeowners struggling to pay their property taxes by putting them on a payment plan that won’t charge additional penalties or interest if done before a pre-determined deadline. In order for these options to be effective, the treasurer’s office needs to be proactive about engaging the community through multiple platforms. Residents need to know what options are available to them. Personnel from the office should be in the neighborhoods every week speaking with residents about financial management, efficient budgeting, and how county government can help them stay in their homes.

How can the land bank best be used to improve the quality of life for residents of Montgomery County?

McManus: Before speaking about the land bank, I’d like to address the Lot Links program that was shuttered abruptly this year. Lot Links was an effective partnership between the city of Dayton and the Montgomery County Treasurer’s Office. When I was a member of the Dayton Board of Education, I heard often from residents of Dayton, especially west Dayton, that Lot Links offered everyday people an opportunity to invest in their own neighborhoods. Lot Links helped low-income residents become proud homeowners. With the elimination of Lot Links, there is an easier path for out of state developers to change Dayton’s neighborhoods and push residents out of their homes. I think the sudden elimination of Lot Links was a profound mistake. Land Banks are incredible resources. As a resident of Dayton, I know all too well how discouraging it is to live near blighted or abandoned properties. They litter our neighborhoods. Land Banks have the ability to take control of these properties and demolish those that are beyond repair. Land Banks can also contract out rehabilitation work and sell the homes, or the homes can be transferred to responsible owners. Land Banks are tremendous tools for improving neighborhoods and communities.

Joseph: The Montgomery County Land Bank has a large role to play in improving the quality of life in our neighborhoods. It is uniquely structured to reclaim delinquent and abandoned property and put it back into productive use for our community. The land bank has been instrumental in leveraging millions of dollars from state and federal sources to eliminate blight in our community, but much more work is needed. That’s why as a member of the Land Bank Board, I sponsored a new $6 million matching funds program to help our local communities identify and remove dangerous, abandoned structures from our neighborhoods. We also announced an expansion of our Thriving Neighborhoods initiative to the Huffman Historic neighborhood in east Dayton. This expansion is modeled after a similar, successful initiative in the Pineview neighborhood in west Dayton and works to build a neighborhood-wide approach to putting tax delinquent properties back to productive use. As treasurer, I will fight to find additional resources to expand this program to many more neighborhoods. In addition, the land bank offers a DIY program that transitions vacant properties into the hands of responsible owners who can restore the homes before these properties are beyond repair. It’s a hugely successful program and one that we need to expand.

Russ Joseph

Hometown: Dayton

Family: Spouse Katie Joseph, one child.

Political Party: Democrat

Political Experience: Montgomery County Treasurer, 2019-present; Montgomery County Clerk of Courts, 2017-2019.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in sociology and political science from the University of Dayton.

John McManus

Hometown: Dayton

Family: No spouse or children.

Political Party: Republican

Political Experience: Dayton Board of Education, 2016-2020.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Memphis and a law degree from the University of Dayton School of Law.

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