Full slate of down-ballot races; Candidates say experience is key to being treasurer

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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COLUMBUS — The way John Donofrio sees it, this year’s state treasurer race should come down to experience – namely, his 19 year’s as treasurer of Summit County.

The way Joe Deters sees it, that sort of experience is next to useless, because the state treasurer’s job is so different from the county level.

Mr. Donofrio, a Democrat, and Mr. Deters, the Republican Hamilton County prosecutor, have traded barbs for months as they have run for the office of state treasurer.

Whoever holds the position is in charge of investing and protecting the state’s assets, as well as issuing debt.

The current treasurer, Republican Ken Blackwell, is running for secretary of state.

Mr. Donofrio is running on his experience in Summit County, where he has repeatedly been lauded for creative initiatives. Among them: discounts to homeowners who prepay their property tax bills; a linked deposit program that allows banks to reduce interest rates by 3 per cent on loans that create new jobs in the county, and a program that allows property owners to pay their tax bills monthly without penalty.

Those programs – and others – have earned Mr. Donofrio five Achievement Awards from the National Association of Counties.

“We’ve done an excellent job of thinking of new, innovative programs to help taxpayers out,” he said.

Mr. Donofrio has said that, if elected, he would create a new statewide program called Schools First to help pay for the massive bills forthcoming in elementary and secondary education.

Schools First would allow businesses to pay their taxes early in exchange for a discount. The treasurer’s office would then invest that money in safe bonds and other financial instruments and set aside the extra money generated for schools. He said that Schools First could generate “tens of millions of dollars” in just a few years for schools.

Mr. Donofrio is quick to point out that Mr. Deters has never been a treasurer. He has been a county prosecutor for the last six years, and before that county clerk of courts. Putting away crooks, while admirable, is not preparatory to keeping the state’s books, Mr. Donofrio said.

But Mr. Deters said that being a county treasurer isn’t the best background for being state treasurer, since county treasurers don’t issue debt, which is a significant part of the state job.

Mr. Deters points to his financial experience – a spot on the county budget commission, overseeing the University of Cincinnati’s endowment by serving on its board, providing legal advice on investments to county commissioners – as evidence of his qualifications.

“We’ve got to have a treasurer’s office that is forward thinking, but fiscally conservative,” he said.

Mr. Deters’ proposals have centered on the debt side of the job. Right now, he said, about 16 state agencies borrow money separately, each requiring its own debt bureaucracy. He said he would consolidate their borrowing, saving millions in overhead.

He also said he would shift a portion of the state’s debt from long-term fixed-rate bonds into variable-rate bonds that would save the state money when interest rates drop.

Mr. Deters received fuel for his campaign earlier this fall, when the state performed its annual audit of Summit County. It said that Mr. Donofrio “did not perform timely and accurate reconciliations” in two major accounts in his office. One of them was left unreconciled for all of 1997.

“The bottom line is, he’s not doing his job,” Mr. Deters said.

Mr. Donofrio said the audit simply represents a “difference of philosophy” between state Auditor Jim Petro and himself on how books should be kept, and said that the “insignificant clerical errors” didn’t lead to any loss of money.

He also accuses Mr. Petro, a Republican, of making the audit “absolutely political” in order to help Mr. Deters. Mr. Petro denies the charge, noting that a similar accusation had been included on five other Summit County audits.

Mr. Donofrio criticized his opponent for running for treasurer simply as a stepping-stone to prepare for future state races. In 1993, Mr. Deters was offered the lieutenant governor’s spot on Governor Voinovich’s ticket, but rejected it to remain prosecutor. He is considered a rising star in the Ohio GOP.

In 1994, Mr. Donofrio considered a run for state treasurer, but withdrew before the primary. He has pledged not to run for any other statewide office: “My experience is aimed at being a great state treasurer, not anything else.”

Mr. Deters said that he is not sure what his future political plans would be, but said he would commit all his energy for the next four years to the treasurer’s office.

The race, which polls show to be the closest of the statewide contests, has featured plenty of punching and counterpunching between the two.

Mr. Deters: “John either doesn’t understand his job or doesn’t want to do it. I’ll stick my record against John’s any day.”

Mr. Donofrio: “Joe’s a lawyer, and if he wants to run for attorney general, that’s fine. But if you had $100,000 to invest for your retirement, money you needed, would you want advice from your county treasurer or your county prosecutor?”

Voters will decide for themselves on Nov. 3.