Union-Times Contributing Editor
Current Mille Lacs County Auditor/Treasurer Phil Thompson announced his retirement last month after 41 years of government service.
Thompson, who grew up in Onamia and now lives in Milaca, began his service with the county in the late 1970s when he was hired as deputy treasurer and then promoted to deputy auditor/treasurer.
Twenty-five and a half years ago in 1993, Thompson was appointed to fill his predecessor’s term and has been elected ever since.
In the late 70s, the work of an auditor/treasurer was done a little differently.
Many functions were done manually, often hand calculated and hand written.
Thompson recalls state departments doing all their correspondence by mail, with packets and forms with instructions for reports to be completed by hand and mailed back.
“I believe I have the only remaining typewriter on this floor for an occasional form that isn’t completed on a computer,” says Thompson.
Now things are mostly automated, but that isn’t the only change he has observed.
“People, in general, are much more demanding, entitled, stressed and uptight than they were 41 years ago,” he observes.
Over the years, Thompson’s duties have included tax calculation, billing and collection, managing the county finances, payroll processing, banking, keeping land records, overseeing elections, administrating tax-forfeited property, and other duties.
Along with his regular duties, he is a voting member of the county’s Board of Appeal and Equalization, is the secretary of the county’s extension committee, and serves on other committees.
But just when Thompson has said he’s seen everything, something happens like it did last fall. “Someone needed a replacement absentee ballot because a mouse ate the original one in the mailbox,” quips Thompson.
Thompson recalls with fondness the countless people he’s met over the 41 years with the county.
“It has been an honor to serve the citizens of Mille Lacs County over the years,” he says. “I’ve never been one to need the spotlight, but sometimes just having people know you are dependable, get things done timely and accurately and represent them well are more important than being in the public spotlight. Being re-elected six times is rewarding.”
Thompson admits that the most challenging part of his job has been dealing with disgruntled taxpayers because they don’t think the system is fair or they may not understand the process.
It has also been challenging to accomplish all that needs to be done with limited staffing levels and limited budgets.
When asked what the public may not know, he responded, “The boards and councils set the levies, and the assessor’s office determines the valuations. The auditor/treasurer’s office is just doing the math, the billing and collection of taxes. Many people think there is a person in the back room here personally deciding how much everybody has to pay for taxes.”
He added that timelines and due dates have limited his opportunities for time away, and he has typically only had one week of vacation in the election years.
As someone who has advised the county board and administration on financial matters over the years and dealt with countless people, Thompson was asked if he had any final parting advice for his successor.
He offered this: “Try to keep a feeling of pride and accomplishment for the service you give to the citizens of the county. There will be days when you take a lot of abuse for things that you don’t control; try not to take it personally and don’t let it get you down.”
As far as retirement plans, Thompson says that while he will miss being part of the county team, he trusts the friendships formed will continue and he looks forward to spending time with his wife, Vicki, and their three children and two grandchildren.
The person who will take over for Thompson may be not be the choice of the voters as the county board approved a motion during a special board meeting July 30 to appoint an interim auditor/treasurer.
This is not to say that the permanent auditor/treasurer will be appointed, but the board has expressed their desire to do so.
“The county administration has made it known that they want to change the auditor/treasurer position from elected to appointed. I’ve always thought this should be a decision of the voters,” said Thompson. “There will be opportunities for public input before a county board resolution is adopted.”
Along with public hearings, a clause in the legislation provides that within 30 days after the county board adopts the resolution, a petition requesting a referendum may be filed with the county auditor. The petition must be signed by at least 10 percent of the registered voters of the county which is roughly 1,500 people.
Pine County in 2017 chose not to take the issue to vote and approved the measure via public hearings and board approval and now has an appointed auditor/treasurer.
“I just think it should be a voter’s decision and not just done by six people,” added Thompson. “Usually when they have a county wide vote on these, they fail decidedly, so that should tell them what the people (their constituents) really want.”
T.A. LeBrun is the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger and covers county government for the Union-Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.