LOWVILLE — The post made vacant by longtime Lewis County Treasurer Patricia L. O’Brien’s impending retirement has been contested in more than one way over the past year and now has three people vying for the spot after concerns that there wouldn’t be even one qualified candidate.
Mrs. O’Brien and her predecessor Vickie Roy had both held a number of positions, including deputy director, in the department before running for treasurer, but the current deputy wasn’t interested in the spot.
Heated discussions about making the treasurer an appointed position ended after a public hearing on the topic in which Denise Yost, currently a senior accounts clerk in Mrs. O’Brien’s office, announced that she would run for the office.
Ms. Yost, running on the Independence Party line, said she saw the situation as an opportunity to both keep democracy alive and to use her skills to serve the community.
“I thought, why have somebody come in from the outside and do the job when I know I’m capable of doing it. I just want to do the job and I want to do a good job,” Ms. Yost said.
She said she understands how the office runs and has some knowledge of what the position oversees, for example the tax sale, important journal entries and quarterly reports, but there are many things she acknowledges she will need to learn.
To get started, Ms. Yost said she would use her ability to learn quickly to gain an understanding of what each person in the treasurer’s office does.
She said she also has been developing a list of topics to learn from Mrs. O’Brien directly if she wins the election.
Prior to working in the Treasurer’s Office, Ms. Yost said she gained experience that has prepared her for the treasurer post working for the Resource Center for Independent Living, Utica, where she managed a eight-person team as the office manager.
During that time, she also became well versed in contracts and the demands of both state and federal reporting guidelines for grants and other funding, although not those specific to county governments.
As treasurer, Ms. Yost would like to focus on training to ensure that all departments know and follow protocols, especially for purchasing.
She believes her sense of fiscal responsibility, honesty and her detail-oriented perfectionism will help her serve the county well and will also empower her to speak candidly with department heads and legislators, even on controversial topics, to ensure financial health for the county.
Looking into the treasurer position, Ms. Yost said she discovered it is the job she has been looking for, using all of her skills, especially accounting, which she loves to do.
“I don’t know much about politics. I just want to do this job,” Ms. Yost said, “I want to represent the citizens of the county and to do what’s best for them so I need to make sure funds are accounted for and spent for the best purpose.”
Every answer Democratic Party candidate Christine R. Schwendy gave to questions regarding her treasurer candidacy circled back to her love of Lewis County.
“I thought about moving out of the county at one point, but I realized I was just trying to find Lewis County somewhere else,” Ms. Schwendy said.
Knowing that her current boss may retire within the next couple of years, Ms. Schwendy said she considered going to law school and even took and passed the LSAT, but various friends told her they thought she would be a good county treasurer.
A conversation with Mrs. O’Brien made Ms. Schwendy realize that the skills and relationships she’s developed over the past 16 years as a real estate paralegal have prepared her for the post.
Ms. Schwendy likens juggling many cases with multiple parties in each, as she does every day, to working with the county departments and the legislative board as treasurer, especially when creating budgets.
“I think it comes down to doing what’s best for everybody and for the county, looking at what they can afford, what services they can provide and what services we don’t need. Maybe some of the services are obsolete,” Ms. Schwendy said.
She is not, however, intimidated by the prospect of having to stand firm in her recommendations to people with strong opinions and personalities.
“I’ve dealt with that for 16 years: lawyers who are very opinionated and people of all different backgrounds,” Ms. Schwendy said, “I understand politics and we all have to get along whether we like each other or not. We all have the same ultimate goal — what’s good for this county — or we should. If not, they’re in the wrong spot.”
Ms. Schwendy said she knows there are many things she will need to learn if she is elected treasurer but says she is “really excited to get in there and really see how everything functions.”
Politically, Ms. Schwendy said she is a moderate Democrat, an independent thinker and has Republican supporters, too.
Her experience, honesty and integrity are what Ms. Schwendy says she will bring to the treasurer post.
“The treasurer position is important to the community and it’s important to me to make a difference.”
A number of people also asked Republican and Conservative candidate Eric J. Virkler to consider running for treasurer after Mrs. O’Brien announced her retirement, although it had never been a career goal for him.
“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been paid to try to make Lewis County a better place,” Mr. Virkler said, “I look at what I do now as community service and this, public service, will be just another step in that.”
Despite having run for mayor of Lowville in March, Mr. Virkler said, “I’m not doing this to be an elected official.”
He said his candidacy is also not for money or the state retirement system: if he was motivated by money he would have remained the Lewis County General Hospital chief financial officer, and while being in the county system is helpful for health insurance, he has been managing his own retirement for years.
Mr. Virkler said he “was born and raised as an accountant,” was a certified public accountant for five years and working “truly as an accountant” for over 10 years.
As the director of economic development for the county and executive director of the IDA, Mr. Virkler said he has been working with Mrs. O’Brien, many department heads and the legislators for a number of years, so the interpersonal relationships needed for the treasurer’s position should be a smooth transition for him.
Mr. Virkler said he feels one of the treasurer’s main roles is to supply “good financial information and guidance to the legislators,” while also managing the treasurer’s office and the county’s finances, funds and insurance, all of which are things he done at one point or another throughout his career.
Mr. Virkler said if he becomes treasurer, he is looking forward to the new dynamic with the Board of Legislators that being an elected official will bring.
“As an elected official I can share my thoughts with them on the same level, I believe being an elected official gives the treasurer the ability to do that without the fear of repercussions.”
Mr. Virkler said he brings “a new set of eyes with some experience and knowledge,” although being new also means he has many things to learn, especially the office day-to-day.
While he doesn’t believe in change for the sake of change, Mr. Virkler hopes to help villages and towns work together more raft some change.
Mr. Virkler said that ultimately, he is just a typical Lewis County guy.
“This is home and I don’t really want to live anywhere else.”
A Meet the Candidate forum will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 21 in the Lowville Free Academy High School auditorium, 7668 N. State St., Lowville.
The VIRKLER FILE
Eric J. Virkler, R,C-Lowville
Education: High School: Lowville Free Academy
College: Syracuse University, B.S., Accounting
Current Position: Director, Lewis County Economic Development Department, 10 years
Executive Director, Lewis County IDA, 4 years
Past Experience: CFO, Lewis County General Hospital, 6 years
Family: Wife, Heidi VanZandt
Interesting fact: Competes in triathlon events
The YOST FILE
Denise Yost, I-Lyons Falls
Education: High School: South Lewis Central
College: SUNY Canton, Associate-Business Management, Associate-Hotel management
Current Position: Senior Account Clerk, Lewis County
Treasurer’s Office, 3 years
Past Experience: Regional Center for Independent Living, Utica, 10 years
Family: Daughter, Amanda, 32; Son, Hunter, 18; 2 grandchildren
Interesting fact: Raised her children singlehandedly
The SCHWENDY FILE
Christine R. Schwendy, D-Watson
Education: High School — Lowville Free Academy
College — SUNY Cortland, B.A., Political Science
Current Position: Real Estate Paralegal, Merell & Merell Law Office, Lowville
Time in Current Job: 16 years
Interesting fact: Has a hobby farm, a horse she loves