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Political fighting leaves Custer County’s Finance Department in a precarious position

Originally published, Thursday, January 4, 2024. UPDATE: County IT employee Vernon Roth has been helping work the software and updating the budgets)

When the recall against former County Commissioner Tom Flower succeeded last August, it started turmoil inside the County Courthouse. A week after former Finance Director Braden Wilson was hired as County Manager, the new County Commissioner Lucas Epp, and Commissioner Bill Canda eliminated the position of County Manager, effectively firing Wilson. Four months later, Lisa Bivins, the remaining finance director, resigned before Christmas, leaving only a recent hire to manage the finance department.

In retrospect, firing Wilson seems to have been a hasty decision and only done to appease the supporters of Canda and Epp, who filled public meetings to shout down the idea of a County Manager. With Wilson gone, the county had only one person, Lisa Bivins, to fill the roles of Finance Director and Human Resource Manager. These jobs include payroll, end-of-year budgets, and corrections to the financial books after an audit showed needed adjustments. The Commissioners decided to break apart the dual role of Human Resources and Finance Director, but the Human Resources Position has still not been filled.

In meeting after meeting, angry community members took over the BOCC meeting, yelling and shouting at Commissioner Kevin Day and claiming that Lisa Bivins was incapable of doing the job because she did not have an accounting degree. On multiple occasions, the crowd subjected Bivins to hours of public ridicule, purposely ignoring her experience in government finance and insisting that the Commissioners hire a new Finance Director and deny Bivins a chance to apply for the job she currently held. Two months ago, Bivins hired Gin Huffman as an assistant finance manager to fix the audit findings and prepare multiple budgets for 2024. In early December, the BOCC created a new job description for the finance director to have a Master’s in Accounting or a related field plus hold a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license. While both of these descriptions are preferred and not required, it was clear that Commissioner Bill Canda wanted Bivins removed from her current position and to work as an assistant to a new director.

The problem is that the salary range for the new finance director is between $65,000 and $90,000 (Bivins was making $57,000), which is far too low for the requirements listed. Colorado finance directors with a master’s degree are paid $100,000 to $150,000. It is unlikely the county will be able to find someone with these credentials in Custer County, and it is also unlikely that a person would be able to move to Custer County at such a paygrade for the required credentials. In the meantime, a single person is once again managing the payroll, budgets, and Human Resources tasks for a $10 million-a-year organization.

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The lies about the supposed lack of qualifications of both Wilson and Bivins that Canda and his supporters spread, forced both to look for work outside the community. Fremont and Custer County are experiencing a growing labor shortage, and both Wilson’s and Bivin’s skills were quickly spotted. They were offered jobs in the finance department of the Upper Arkansas Council of Governments, which they both accepted. Wilson is enrolled in a Master’s in Business Administration program at Colorado State University, and when he completes this program, he will meet the requirements set forth by the BOCC but would have only cost the county $90,000 a year.

If Wilson had remained County Manager, the total cost of hiring one additional assistant would have totaled $187,000 for Finance and Human Resources. With the current proposals of the BOCC, the total costs for a Finance Director, assistant finance director, BOCC administrator, and Human Resources Director total $227,000 plus $200,000 a year for an outside advisor to step in until a director can be hired. Yet, it is unlikely that they will be able to find a finance director with the current job requirements for less than $100,000 a year.

The BOCC is advertising the position on multiple online job sites and plans to do some research in the local community as well.

– Jordan Hedberg

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