Evelyn Powers on running the city's 'bank,' balancing accounts at her father's grocery store, and the tax collector in the Bible

This week, we sit down with Evelyn Powers, who is running as a Democrat to become the city's next treasurer, a post she's held since 2003.

In advance of the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 2, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with local candidates, including for uncontested races, to give voters insights into who their elected officials will be. These interviews are accessible to non-subscribers to promote civic engagement to the widest possible audience.

This week, we sit down with Evelyn Powers, who is running as a Democrat to become the city's next treasurer, a post she's held since 2003. The race is uncontested.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

For those who may be unfamiliar, what does your office do, and what are the duties of the city treasurer?

So the duties of the city treasurer is we mail out all the tax statements and we do all the collections. We're sort of like the city's bank. So all the funds, all money that comes into the city, comes through my office, through bank accounts. We’re responsible for reconciling all the bank accounts, we're responsible for, of course, a daily balancing of all of our receipts for the day, backup to our finance, to our general ledger system. We also do all the investments for the city, so we have to follow the state laws on investing city funds. So we handle all that. We do that for Roanoke City and for Roanoke City Public Schools. We also manage all the bank accounts for the Roanoke City schools, and we work with them, with their staff, who does the reconciliation. We receive all the money that comes into the city so whether it comes from the feds, whether it comes by the state, departments. All city departments that get money for stuff that might come through their department, all has to come through the treasurer's office, and all of that is balanced every day. So, it's a huge job. Collections. We're responsible for mailing out delinquent collections and collecting all that. We're responsible for the tax sale. We do payment plans. We work with taxpayers on setting up payment plans to get their delinquent taxes paid. We deal with dog tags, we sell the dog tags. We sell cigarette tax, the cigarette stamps, to all the wholesalers. We also sell all the state cigarette stamps and deal with that. We do state and estimated income taxes. So every year when people are paying their estimated taxes, they send that to our Commissioner of the Revenue's office but all those funds come through my office. We do a daily reconciliation of that and we upload files and send those to the state. So, again, a little bit of hodgepodge of everything. But if it deals with the money that comes through the city of Roanoke, it hits my office.

I just observed gentlemen come to the front desk seeing an assessment, and they sent him to the Commissioner of the Revenue's office. For people who may be confused, you know, can you talk about why are they separate?

So you want separation of duty. You certainly don’t want your treasurer assessing your property and collecting your property, so there needs to be that separation of duty. The Commissioner of the Revenue's office, that's what they do. They do the assessments on personal property, and we have a separate assessor's office for real estate.

I believe you were first appointed in 2003 and then elected a couple of years later. What at the time made you want to become city treasurer?

Well, when I finished school, I went to work for the bank, which I loved. My parents tell me that they took me to the — I was about six or seven — they said they were coming downtown to the First National Exchange Bank, you know the one down here on Jefferson Street, that's now not open, it's closed, it's a gorgeous bank. They had me with them and they said that I told them that when I grew up, I was going to work in that bank. And I did, and I loved it. I loved banking. But at that time, the banking merging system was not good. And my husband at that time worked for the bank, worked for another bank. And so we had just bought a house, and I was fortunate enough to be in the department Financial Planning and Reporting, where I worked with the economist for the bank, and he’s like, 'You're smart enough to see these numbers' and I'm like, 'Uh yeah, I ain’t liking what I'm seeing. And I think I'm gonna look for another job' and he said, 'I don't blame you.' So I was very fortunate to get a position with the city internal audit department. And I stayed in that department for almost 23 years. Our prior treasure, I asked him, I said, 'So, who's going to take over when you retire?' and he said, 'I don't know' so I thought well, I'll throw my hat in, and I did. But one of the things that I did and I had, you know, been here for 23 years and working in internal audit. I knew the direction of what was going to happen because the whole computer system stuff had just really started taking off then and so I knew that this office was going to have to really go more technology.

So when I did the interview with the council, I put together a packet of where I thought the city needed to go and what we needed to do and it paid off, I got the appointment. And one of the things that I told them that if they gave me that opportunity, I would never let them down. I take my job very seriously. I'm here a few minutes after 7 p.m. most days, about every day. I put in probably 55 to 60 hours a week. I've never had a vacation where I didn't do city work. You know I look at my emails, I try to get back with people. But I think the taxpayers, you know, what they need in positions like this is someone to listen to them. When you think about being delinquent, these people don't want to be delinquent. Life happens, things happen to people. So, you know, how I train my collectors is to have a listening ear, and not to be, 'I got you,' you know, be hardcore, because people want to just be heard. And so that's my philosophy about collections, and helping people. When I first started at the bank, my position was in repo. And I thought, Man, this was, you know, I wasn't really sure that that's where I wanted to go, but I always loved the banking world. And this really fit here at the city for me. So that's why I stuck my name in the hat and I was very blessed that I had the opportunity to get that position, and I've been very blessed each four years to run unopposed. I hope that means that our taxpayers think I’m doing a good job. I do love my job. I just finished my 40th year in April. And I just, you know, I'm not sure a lot of people can say that they've worked somewhere for 40 years and that they've always enjoyed what they do. I won’t deny the fact that COVID has been very stressful. But I have an absolute wonderful team, they work so well together. They know what I like. They know that, you know, I'm very concerned and dedicated to the city and I'm dedicated to our taxpayers.

That's great. Well, you'd mentioned, I just want to make sure I didn't mishear, it was the banking merging, is that what you said?

Yes, it was the merging. Actually, six months later, I came in April of 1981, and I think it was about six months later, everybody in that department that I worked for, with the exception of one, lost their job. So I was fortunate.

Why banking?

My father owned a country grocery store in Catawba. When I was 13 my father sent me to a bookkeeping school to learn how to do bookkeeping and I did the books for my dad's grocery store until I was 26 years old, when he retired. And my dad did collections, like he would lend money to people, they would buy groceries on credit. I did all that, I worked on all that. So, I guess I just grew up in it, and I always liked it, but one thing I have to tell you that my father always taught me was he taught me the skill of listening to people and that life doesn't always give us the choices that we want. Bad things happen or we find ourselves in a situation, whether it's an illness and you get behind being able to make payments, so he always taught me about listening to people. And when you listen to people and they know that you really truly care about them, they're gonna pay you. They want to do, because you're helping them. And so I've carried that with me all my life. And it really, it really has paid off. We get some pretty sad stories, sometimes, and it's pretty heartbreaking. So, you know, we want to make sure that we're doing the right thing, that we're listening to our taxpayers.

I'm curious about any sort of specific policies or actions you're seeking to carry out next term?

Well, one thing that we've already done that I've already worked with the city council on is, as I told you, I keep telling you about listening. The penalty, a day late, one day late, is 10 percent. And it's really hard on people. So, as we put in the new [technology] system, I went to Council, and we asked for personal property and real estate [taxes] to have a sliding scale, and they approved it. So, with the new system, the first 15 days after the deadline, you'll have a 2 percent penalty. And then, after, on the 16th day if you still don't pay it, then it picks back up the other 8 percent. But it helps those people, like I say, life happens, you might have a flat tire, you might get sick, you know, and especially as we all get older and I'm seeing this now and sometimes forget things. You know, it helps those people that waited to the last minute, so they won't have a 10 percent penalty, they'll have a 2 percent penalty. We made some other changes, like our trust taxes, where the penalty is going to be on the unpaid balance and not on the original balance. So we've really tried to sit down and think about and go back and look at these codes sections that have been written for a long long time, and really go back and look at them now and assess what changes. What's different now, because there's a lot of things that are different. So, just basically, you know, continue the process and our collections of better ways to quickly get to people. I think having our online payment portal that's actually going to show you your bill is going to help people, because they'll have, you know, right now, access to that. So, those are the kind of things as I move forward, I want to, you know, finish my career with the city. At the end of this term, I'll be 68 years old with almost 45 years of service. I’m not quite sure I'll run again. I'm grooming my chief deputy right now. I hope that's something that she will want to do. You know, she's absolutely wonderful; she is my right hand. I don't know what I'd do without her. But like I say, I'm very blessed to have a wonderful staff, and I hope you'll put that in your thing about how great the staff is because, you know, you can't do these jobs alone, you can't do them by yourself, it takes a dedicated team of people to do this, and I have that. So I really, I care a lot about them. So, and that's one reason why I've decided to run again, is, you know, again, I'll go back to my parents. And they always taught me about, Don't start something you're not willing to finish. We had hoped to be finished by now, but COVID really put a damper on us; it really put a halt to being able to meet in person and trying to do this on Zoom it's been very stressful. And not just for me but for our entire staff. So, you know when last fall when we knew we weren't going to be able to go live, I had to quickly make a decision. And I could hear my parents telling me, Don't quit. So that's why I decided to do it one more time. So all I do now is ask God to get me through every day.

What will people see once this new technology system's all up and running, and when do you anticipate that will be?

We're hoping to go live before they end of this year. Right now we have some issues, so I can't say for sure that it will happen. You know, it might take them a little bit time at the window, because people get nervous and you know it's a massive system, it's changing all of our tax functions. So, I think things might be a little slow at the window but what I think they're gonna see is that we’ll be able to give them better service as far as, 'Here's everything you owe.' But the biggest thing for businesses, too, is on the commissioner’s side is they're going to have an online filing, which we don't have, and that's going to be really nice because I can upload everything [to] file their taxes. And then over here is a button to push and pay it takes them right to the payment page.

Outside of work, what do you do for fun?

Well, my hobbies are I like to sew. And I like to do crafts, gardening, I love gardening, and I like reading books. I do look forward to the day of retirement because my husband retired. He worked for the school system for 39 years. Although he's working part time for the city parks and recreation. He enjoys that. But I have six grandchildren. They're all here in this area. So I look forward to spending time with them. My grandson was being baptized at church, not a church that I go to, so my son called and said, 'Hey, Sunday, Christopher's getting baptized are y'all coming?' and I said, 'Yeah, I'll be there.' So they sat in a pew in front of us and I'm sitting behind him and the minister starts talking about the tax collector in the Bible. And you know the tax collector and the Bible's not always pleasant. And so my son turned around, looked at me and he goes, 'Oh, mom, you're probably never coming back to this church again are you?' and I said, 'I'm going to tell your minister the tax collector today is not like back then.' It’s different. It’s funny, because the [grandkids], they’ll notice because they will tell me, 'Nana, in Sunday school, they talked about the tax collector. It wasn’t very good.' I was like, 'I’m not the same tax collector. Don't call me the chief tax collector.'

Although, render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, right?

Well, that's what it says. I hope I do not portray that image to our taxpayers.

Is there anything else you think is important for voters to know, either about you or about the office or about the election?

I just hope they know that this is their office. It's not my office. I work for them, and I hope they know that we always have an open door policy that they can feel comfortable to come down here and talk to us, if it's just about their tax concerns or whatever. But I want the taxpayers to know that I do take this job seriously ,that they've entrusted in me to be the keeper of their funds, and I work very hard to do that. And I will continue to do that.