This week, after 40 years of service, Clay County Treasurer Cathi Powell is retiring. Powell started in the Treasurer’s Office in 1979 and has served as treasurer for 26 years. Rhonda Howe, who has worked in the treasurer’s office for five years, has been appointed to serve out Powell’s term as treasurer until December 2020.
“The board chose to appoint Rhonda as I had been working with her for the last 18 months teaching her to do things that only I as the treasurer had been doing,” said Powell. “They felt this would ensure a smoother transition with less interruption to the services the Clay County Treasurer’s Office provides than if they hired someone who had no experience in the office. Rhonda was the only person in the office interested in the position. [Rhonda] and anyone else interested in the position will need to take out a petition and run for the office in the next general election in November, 2020.”
Powell found her way into public service in the 1970s. She originally wanted to become an airline stewardess, but found that her eyesight, even with contacts, was not good enough for her to follow that career.
“So, I came back home from airline school and needed a job,” said Powell. “The first job that I was offered was with USD Food Service -- this was back in 1970 when USD had their own food service. So, I went to work at the Commons dining room. After a few years, I knew I did not want to stay in the food service industry for the rest of my working years, so I started to look for a job that was more mentally challenging. I wasn’t having much success until the position in the Clay County Treasurer’s Office came open. I applied and was hired.”
After 14 years in the treasurer’s office, the then-treasurer retired, so Powell took out a petition and was elected as Clay County treasurer in 1992.
“I was sworn in to the position in January 1993,” said Powell, who has served as treasurer ever since. “This is my seventh term and no, you have never seen my name on a ballot as I have never had opposition. The treasurer before me only had opposition once in her career, so it has probably been 50 years since anyone has seen the Clay County treasurer listed on an election ballot! I am sure there are many people who don’t even realize that the County Treasurer is an elected position!”
During more than 40 years in the treasurer’s office, Powell has seen many changes. For one, when she started, everything was done manually.
“Nothing was done by computer,” she said. “The county did have a main frame, but only the auditor’s office used it. None of the other county offices had access to the main frame … Everything we did was by hand or with a typewriter. Everyone’s vehicle registration expired on March 31 and the earliest you could renew was the first working day of January. So, January, February and March were busy months for vehicle registration renewal, with March being the busiest.”
Working in the treasurer’s office early on involved a lot of paperwork and hand-calculations, especially before computers.
“Part of my job when I started was to balance out the motor vehicle transactions. Back then, we only balanced out every three days, so I would have three days’ worth of motor vehicle transactions that I had to add up according to what the transaction involved,” Powell said. “I used a legal pad on which I listed each motor vehicle category and these categories were broken down by the amount of the fees, so I would have so many cars and trucks at $21 or $30 or $42, etc. This would be done for each type of license fee we had.
“I would then total all the fees together and give them to the treasurer when she did the balancing. Also, all of this information was entered on a report that was sent to the Motor Vehicle Division in Pierre, along with copies of title applications and registrations. … January was a busy month as we had to get the tax notices out. Back then, the auditor’s office would print the notices, which were on a continuous feed form printed on a dot matrix printer. They would bring us the notices which were in alphabetical order, which we then had to tear apart and file,” she said. “The notices were five parts, with the last copy being the actual notice that was mailed out. The other four parts were the first and second half receipts, which we used when processing a tax payment. As we filed the notices, we would tear off the back copy so it could be put in an envelope to be mailed. So once we had all the notices pulled, then we got to stuff and seal envelopes (which thankfully printed with the postage already on them). That process usually took us to the end of January to complete as we still had customers to wait on and the phone to answer.”
Of course, advancing technology has played an instrumental role in changing how things are done in the treasurer’s office.
“With the technology now available, we are able to get documents via email or fax that used to take us weeks to get,” said Powell. “I was the first office to add a personal computer to the office. Of course, that computer was nothing like computers are today, but at the time we thought it was great. We had dial up internet and mostly it was used for writing letters. As time went on, I learned to set up spreadsheets (many of which we still use today) and how to create many of the forms that we still use today. Of course, now we use our computers for just about everything we do. Also, when I took over the office, I did away with the validator and went to a cash register.”
The validator, she said, could only be used for ringing up taxes.
“With the cash register, we could enter all types of transactions and get totals for each type of transaction at the end of the day, which made balancing out much easier. When our cash register started acting up, I asked our software provider to design a cash register program for our main frame. This allowed many transactions to automatically post to the cash register which meant fewer errors in entering information,” Powell said. “When we went to the computerized cash register, we also had a program designed so that we could process tax receipts on the computer, so we no longer had to validate a receipt and sign it. We could just locate the persons taxes, process the payment, print them a receipt (or receipts). … Since all this information was now on the main frame, locating information on tax payments was much faster than it had been when we had to look up that information manually.
“ Now any receipt we issue for any fees collected are all done on the computer cash register program, most of those fees post to the appropriate funds eliminating the need for someone to have to manually enter that information,” Powell said “We are then able to create various reports that help us in our daily and end of month balancing.”
How the office deals with motor vehicles has also changed.
“I think it was around 1987 that we started processing motor vehicle transactions on the computer,” said Powell. “So now instead of the box of pre-printed registrations we could find the customer on the system and process their renewal or new title transaction. At first, only a registration would print. We still had to manually complete the title application. Now, everything is processed on the computer and it all printed, so we don’t have to do anything manually. And of course, it is much faster to find information on a transaction we processed. Somewhere in the late 80’s or early 90’s, we went to a staggered licensing system, so now people’s registrations expire in different months instead of all registration expiring in March. So now we are busy with vehicle registration pretty much every month of the year instead of just the first three months.”
Adjusting to changes the State of South Dakota makes and passes down to counties has always been a challenge, said Powell. Eleven years ago, the state implemented a new motor vehicle system that caused a lot of chaos for the first few months of its use, she said.
“Now, the state is getting ready to implement a new and improved system within the next year,” said Powell. “Hopefully, it goes off without too many issues. I was hoping they were going to have the new system in place before I retired, but that isn’t going to happen.”
When Powell started her career in the treasurer’s office, there were three full time people and one part-time person working there. Today, there are six full time employees. Powell said she has really enjoyed working with her staff.
“I have been fortunate and have been blessed with an exceptional staff,” said Powell. “They are hard-working dedicated employees.”
Though she is looking forward to retirement, Powell admits she will miss the job.
“I have really enjoyed my time here,” she said. ‘Those 40 years went by really fast. I will miss the daily interaction with the public and trying to help them solve issues they might have with taxes, vehicle registration, etc. Everyone is asking me what I plan to do in my retirement. I usually have a large garden that I will get to spend more time in and I hope to get back to my hobbies of reading and sewing. Maybe I will even have time to try some new things!”