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Members should receive no compensation except for actual traveling expenses. The secretary should be appointed by the board and should receive a salary fully commensurate with the ability required, and the responsibility of his work. He is the expert of the board, usually a high authority on questions of charity and penology, and should be liberally supplied with clerical help.
It is quite evident that in the fundamental matter of taxation where local divisions are called upon to make common contributions to State expenses there must be direct State administrative control over the local taxing authorities. Otherwise localities are able by undervaluation to escape their fair portion of State taxes. To meet this evil and also to furnish a board of appeal for aggrieved taxpayers, as well as a board of assessment for certain classes of corporate property, twenty-five of the American States have created State boards of equalization and assessment. As agencies for equalizing taxes these boards have been unsatisfactory because their task is an impossible one. Yet in this and other things they have achieved some success, and, since scarcely two boards are constructed in the same way, a comparative study throws considerable light upon the best methods of selection. Probably the most inefficient board in the country is that of Illinois, where the board is composed of one member from each congressional district, elected by popular vote. The board which can show the best results since its creation in 1891, is that of Indiana, consisting of five members, the governor, auditor and secretary of state ex officio, with two salaried commissioners appointed by the governor, from different political parties, for a term of four years. The latter members, perform the expert administrative work of the board, while the ex-officio members give it high standing and authority. The duties of the board are to prescribe forms of assessment books and blanks for township and county assessors, to construe the tax and revenue laws of the State; to see that assessments of property are
according to law; to have original jurisdiction in assessing railroad property; to see that all taxes due to the State are collected; to enforce penalties upon violation of revenue laws; to study different systems of taxation and to recommend changes to the legislature. Its powers are far-reaching. It may subpoena and examine witnesses; administer oaths; demand access to books or papers of any corporation; fine persons who disobey subpoenas; receive and decide appeals from county boards of review. In the assessment of railways it is bound by no statutory rules, and its powers are discretionary. In the first year of its existence it raised the valuation of railways from $69,000,000, as established hitherto by the thousand township assessors of the State, to $160,000,000, an increase of 130 per cent. This startling result, and incidentally the comprehensive powers of the board, have been recently sustained in a notable decision by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Coming yet more closely to the question in hand, the States of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota have provided an officer, the public examiner, whose duty is the direct supervision of certain local authorities. These are the only States in the union which have taken any steps in this direction. The experiment, so far as it goes, shows decidedly good results, and should be brought to the attention of the law-makers in other States. Minnesota is the pioneer in the movement, her statute having been enacted in 1878, while the Dakotas copied the Minnesota act upon their admission to statehood.
The Minnesota law of 1878 provides that a public examiner shall be appointed by the governor, who shall be a skillful accountant and who shall have power to examine the accounts of State institutions, State and county officers, and banking institutions. As respects county officers, it is made his duty to enforce a correct and uniform system of bookkeeping, to expose erroneous systems, to ascertain the character and financial standing of bondsmen, and to approve or
reject such sureties, to personally visit at least once a year said officers without notice to them, and to make a thorough examination of their books, accounts, vouchers, assets, securities, bondsmen, commissions, fees, charges. Where county officers neglect or refuse to obey his instructions the attorney-general is, on application, required to take action to enforce compliance. Reports are made to the governor who may suspend or remove* county officers for malfeasance or non-feasance in the performance of official duties.
The biennial reports of the examiner present a vivid picture of the need for such an officer, of the difficulties encountered and of the increasing benefits of the law. County officers were found to be derelict in their duties, books and accounts were confused, bondsmen were lacking, public funds were yielding large interest payments to the private purses of treasurers, several commissioners, auditors and sheriffs were receiving unusual and illegal fees, money was being paid out without warrants and received without records, besides numberless petty irregularities. Most of these evils were corrected within a few years, notwithstanding the fact that the examiner has never been granted adequate clerical help. In 1878 only seventeen counties received interest on public funds, to the amount of $7000. In 1886 fiftyseven counties received $29,000. This item alone recompenses the State beyond the expenses of the examiner's office. In the early years of the statute the examiner secured the suspension of several county officers for incompetence and malfeasance. "The salutary effect of these removals," says the report of 1880, "has reached far beyond the offenders immediately concerned. There has been a general toning up of officials to resist the incipient encroachments upon the treasury which are the sure foundation of future troubles."
Not the least important result of the office has been the information given to the legislature and the public upon the defects of the laws governing county officers. Several of
*As amended by act of 1881.
the examiner's recommendations have been adopted, to the marked advantage of the public service, such as amendments governing the deposits of public funds, making the treasurer as well as other officers subject to suspension, giving the governor power to remove officers as well as to suspend them, providing legal forms for official bonds, and securing checks upon, and uniform entry of, all payments by the treasurer in the auditor's office.
The Minnesota law is by no means perfect, and the examiner has been unable, mainly by reason of insufficient appropriations, to fulfill all the possibilities of his position. The law extends to county officers only and should be extended to towns, townships and cities. Other duties are assigned to the examiner, especially the supervision of building and loan associations, State banks, the State treasury and State institutions. In recent years, the examiner has been giving his attention largely to the banks. The same is true of the
examiners in the Dakotas.
The extension of the examiner's supervision to cities would very naturally occur to the student of American city government. On inquiry I learn from Mr. M. D. Kenyon, the public examiner of Minnesota, that a partial trial has already been made in the city of St. Paul. He writes: "In regard to the extension of this office over city governments, I have to say that in 1891 the legislature by special enactment provided that this office should exercise its powers over the financial offices of the city of St. Paul. And while not providing for a complete audit of the business of the city, the financial plans of the various officers have been examined at considerable detail and some matters of irregularities have been gone into extensively and the public informed in regard thereto and corrections made where necessary. It would be entirely practicable to extend the jurisdiction of the office over municipal corporations by providing proper assistance.
"In the case of this city the expense was provided for in the act, to be paid for by the city at a sum not to exceed
$600 in any one year and not more than $6 per day for the time consumed in making examinations.
As a matter of fact, the first examination cost something like $300, the second the entire sum of $600 (the examination covering a large amount of delinquent special taxes), the third $69. It is thought that generally the expense would not exceed in the future a larger sum than $100 per year. If the entire audit of the business were made for the year it would probably require the sum of $600 per year for a city of this size. If practicable, the plan of requiring corporations to pay expenses of examination would be the better one, the State paying the salary of the principal officer, and the amount contributed by the corporations being used in procuring clerical help, and the limitation of the amount required from each corporation being determined by the number of inhabitants.
"After having become thoroughly familiar with matters of each municipality, they could be systematized in the same manner as we have been enabled to systematize county affairs, and the expenses kept within reasonable limit, so that they would not be burdensome."
The opinion of Mr. T. E. Blanchard, the examiner of South Dakota, is also of interest. He says: "Minnesota and North Dakota have offices almost exactly similar to the public examiner in this State. I know of no other which embraces the same idea. The States very largely have some kind of supervision of banks. The plan of central control of counties and public institutions works admirably wherever tried. Besides systematizing the system of acts it saves many times the amount it costs. Much money could be saved to the public if something of the kind could be applied to city and township governments, as I believe there are more irregularities and defalcations in these than in counties, because the people have less access to them, and crookedness and mismanagement are more easily concealed."