On any given day, Merced County Treasurer-Tax Collector Karen Adams handles a portfolio worth up to $700 million dollars.
Crunching numbers and tracking financial markets all day might seem tedious to some, but Adams’ eyes light up when she talks about her role as the county’s cash manager and investment officer.
It’s a job she’s been elected to do for the last 12 years, but Adams is being challenged in this year’s primary election — a first for the 56-year-old.
While the treasurer-tax collector job might not seem like the flashiest, it’s a critical role in managing and safekeeping the county’s money. Adams’ department collects more than $1 billion annually from taxes, local agencies, schools, college and special districts.
Adams said she’s proud of her track record of collecting, investing and protecting the county’s money. She points to a 2008 decision to sell off the county’s holding in Lehman Brothers before its massive collapse.
Some counties lost hundreds of millions of dollars, but Adams said she prevented a $10 million loss to Merced County by listening to chatter in the market and keeping her ear to the ground. “I’ve got experience in financial markets,” Adams said, “and a history of navigating through volatile financial markets and not realizing financial loss to investments.”
Despite those accomplishments, Adams’ office has been marred by controversy and scandal. In 2011, Adams was investigated for sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior – claims that were substantiated by an independent investigator.
The Merced County Board of Supervisors unanimously censured Adams and stripped her duties as registrar of voters. Because the treasurer-tax collector is an elected office, the board couldn’t take away those duties.
Adams chalked up the incident to one disgruntled employee who was denied a raise. That employee, identified as the assistant registrar of voters, Stacey Cotter, was later awarded a settlement close to $30,000 by the county.
“I acknowledged the inappropriate communications to her, I’ve gone through the county process and I have refrained from using inappropriate language,” Adams said. “I believe the public will look past that and realize that they want someone they can trust who won’t just rubber-stamp a promotion.”
The treasurer-tax collector’s office made headlines again in February when authorities arrested one of Adams’ managers, Anthony J. Thompson, in a sexual bribery investigation. Investigators believe Thompson offered to reduce fines and fees owed to the county for at least one woman in exchange for “dates.”
No charges have been filed against Thompson and the case remains under investigation.
Adams said she sounded the alarm on Thompson three years ago after he “threatened” her, but the human resources director dismissed the claims as “hearsay.” When a collector raised more concerns about Thompson, Adams said, she took action by contacting human resources again.
“I’m the one that picked up the phone when the collector was telling me this,” Adams said, adding that she was unaware of allegations that Thompson manipulated accounts. “If the Sheriff’s Department determines there was an account that had been tampered with, we would correct it and pursue the collection.”
Adams also faced scrutiny for a decision made in August to stop bank seizures, a collection method for delinquent taxes, and refund money to a politically connected business owner who owed thousands in back taxes. Adams said she stopped the process because of a few “illegal seizures” and hasn’t reinstated the collection method yet.
“We’re not going to be able to bring them back until we have the ongoing management support to ensure the collectors are compliant with law,” Adams said. “If it comes to your attention that collectors are being overzealous and preparing illegal seizures, who would cite me wrong for stopping a process until we get the training and oversight?”
In her role as the tax collector, a consolidation in 2008 placed the Revenue and Reimbursement Department under Adams’ supervision – a decision she denounced before the Board of Supervisors. As positions got eliminated or frozen in her department, Adams said, she urged county administrators for more resources.
“I’ve always supported Revenue and Reimbursement, but I don’t feel like I’ve been supported by the Board of Supervisors with the necessary appropriations,” she said. “My budget has been impacted more than any elected official, and I’ve continued to request and voice my frustration. I’ve been crippled because we haven’t had the resources.”
Adams, a certified public accountant, said she doesn’t bow to pressure from elected officials and applies tax collection methods consistently to all taxpayers.
“That’s what I’m most proud of. I’ve held steadfast to my commitment to the lawful and equitable treatment of taxpayers,” Adams said. “We’re not about putting people out of their homes. We’re not about closing businesses and penalizing employees. We want to establish a payment arrangement so they can extinguish their debt.”