Democratic challenger Marleen Suarez has criticized Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler's recent tax bill, alleging that it amounts to campaign literature.
Suarez, who is running against Prenzler in the November election, said the back copy of the latest Madison County tax bills focused on touting Prenzler's successes in office, rather than informing taxpayers of ways to save money on their property taxes.
"There's a time and place for everything," Suarez said. "Mr. Prenzler has been working on his re-election campaign instead of promoting these programs out in the county for the citizens."
The back copy of the tax bill includes an infographic alleging that Prenzler achieved $1.5 million in savings from automation of tax payments, which he said is enough to pay for the operation of his office for a year.
Another infographic details the average penalty tax rate under Prenzler as significantly lower than under former treasurer Fred Bathon, who is currently serving a 30-month term in federal prison on charges of rigging tax auction bids.
Suarez said she believes the tax bills amount to campaign ads printed at taxpayer expense. "These tax bills are not a political promotion piece, they are tax bills," she said. "He is not using his office's resources ethically."
Prenzler said he "strongly disagrees" that the tax bills are political. He said previous bills have featured photos of the treasurer, and that the cost savings he discusses on the bills are directly related to changes in how they collect taxes.
As to the comparisons with Bathon, he said many people don't understand tax sales, but do understand rate drops.
"Many taxpayers in Madison County were harmed by criminal tax sales," he said. "It's important for taxpayers to know that the tax sales are now honest, and average penalty rates have dropped from 17.91 percent to 1.59 percent."
Suarez pointed out that an ethics complaint has been filed against Prenzler alleging use of county resources to promote his political campaign. But Prenzler said he believes the ethics complaint was political retribution for his public statement last month that he believes St. Clair County's tax-buying system has similarities to the rigged system that sent Bathon and two others to federal prison.
St. Clair County treasurer Charles Suarez denied the allegations, stating that they run "a true reverse auction," and St. Clair County state's attorney Brendan Kelly said there have been no allegations of wrongdoing.
Charles Suarez is Marleen Suarez's brother-in-law, and alleged that Prenzler made the comparison because of the family connection to his opponent.
Marleen Suarez has also criticized Prenzler for spending $9,600 to create madcotreasurer.org, when she said the county already has a website for the treasurer's office to offer information to taxpayers.
In addition, the tax-savings programs are difficult to find on the site, Suarez said: discount programs for the elderly, veterans and the disabled. By contrast, she said, St. Clair County's treasurer site has detailed information on each program.
"I plan on dedicating one employee as a community outreach professional," Suarez said. "There's been a serious lack of communication with the community by the current treasurer. ... There are some very important and valuable tax programs for citizens to save money."
Prenzler said it is the job of the county assessor's office to promote programs such as senior citizens' tax deferral or veterans' homestead exemption.
"When I took office, I was asked not to 'play' assessor," he said. "On the other hand, I do inform taxpayers of ways to save money when it comes to property taxes."