Not Your Average Joe

The new county treasurer isn't too sure how he got here, but he's happy to help

Finally he asked for questions, and suddenly everything changed. I think I will not go too far into the particular pension issue they asked him about here, only because it's pretty abstruse. It had to do with "adjustable rate" versus "fixed rate" pension plans and the ability of retirees to ask for adjustments in their plan to cover unanticipated inflation—very important to the people present.

Joe was totally on top of it. He explained the legal issues and the financial issues. He explained the legislative political issues in Austin, naming the house bill and the state bill that could affect their fortunes. He also explained how and why the proposed legislation would impact politics on the Dallas County Board of Commissioners.

If the law stays the way it is, the commissioners court has an excuse not to help the retirees. If the new legislation passes, that excuse goes away. He told them whom to call and what to say.

Commissioner John Wiley Price is the impatient brainiac of the commissioners court.
Commissioner John Wiley Price is the impatient brainiac of the commissioners court.

It was brilliant, and they were all sort of up on the edges of their chairs, I'm sure because nobody had ever laid it out intelligently and frankly for them that way before.

A man in the audience summarized and restated what Joe had just said: "Last year we went down before the commissioners court," he said, "and of course, they turned us away by saying, 'Well, there's nothing we can do, because we're on fixed rate.' But if this bill passes, they can't say that."

Austin said, "That's why we've got to put the heat on the state representatives to pass this bill."

I saw Joe's eyebrows shoot up, and he came back at the mike with his head cocked sideways. "When you put the heat on," he said, "I'd just as soon you didn't tell them who sent you."

They laughed, taking it for a joke. I don't think it was a joke. I think he really did not mean to take sides between the retirees and the commissioners, but he was not able to be less than completely honest with them about what he knew, and he knew a lot.

Midge Austin took back the mike at one point and said to him, "You and I worked together for 12 years for County Commissioner Chris Semos. I have been so impressed with you. Joe, I didn't know you were so smart."

Um, yeah. Well, I knew he was smart. But I'm like her. I didn't know he was so smart.

The man who had summarized his remarks for him spoke again. "We appreciate your honesty," he said. Now they really clapped.

Maybe everybody who's brand-new in office is like this for a while—awed by the responsibility, genuinely eager to please and to do well. But I see not a flash of narcissism, not an ounce of the darling child soaking up licks and kisses of the crowd, things I'm so accustomed to seeing.

And then there's this mile-a-minute fast-jabber absolute fascination with the minute workings of local government. You don't see that at your typical turkey shoot. I was even a little worried about it at first.

The treasurer's office is arcane in the first place. He's not the tax collector, and he's not the county clerk. The county treasurer, an office established and required by state law, is the in-house banker or chief financial officer for the county. Other branches of county government collect money, but all of that money must go to the treasurer, who counts it up, puts it in the bank or invests it and then cuts most of the checks, including payroll.

When Joe took me on a tour of the modest office space occupied by the treasurer and his 17 employees, you would have thought he had snuck me in backstage at Carnegie Hall. The only thing he didn't do as we slipped up behind each employee was put a finger to his lips for stealth.

"This is Steve Emery," he said. "He's the investment person. I came in the first day, and he let me watch him invest."

Oh, that must have been exciting!

"One thing he does is investment pools of the money that's available, so he earns as much revenue as possible overnight. He does these re-purchase agreements for like $90 million or $100 million or $127 million, and it's 1/365th of 5.25 or 5.27 percent interest, so that's one hunk of the investing. And then he's got $125 million worth of CDs."

On and on, rapid-fire, every single employee. He's already off on another employee, and I'm still back on 1/365th of 5.25 percent.

During the weeks I was following Joe around, I also attended a couple of commissioners court meetings to observe our new county judge, Jim Foster, and I called people I know in county politics to ask questions about the other tsunamians. The reviews on the new district attorney, Craig Watkins, for example, are what I would call nervously optimistic.

Watkins' decision to allow the Innocence Project to review DNA evidence in 354 questionable Dallas County convictions has probably earned Dallas the most and best public relations it's had since back-to-back Super Bowls in '78 and '79, including an incisive piece by NPR correspondent Wade Goodwyn that made us look almost...well, you know, civilized. I'm not sure we even know how to handle that here.

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