Brown's law: The art of the 'necessary no'
Santa comes early for the city of Charlottesville– December 5, to be exact, the date when all property owners better have their real and personal property tax checks written. And deep inside City Hall in a secret room, busy elves– er– workers count the thousands of pieces of mail that come in each day this time of year– and make a list of who's been naughty and who's been nice.
City treasurer Jennifer Brown's name is on the holiday tax bills citizens receive, and she winces when they suggest she's the evil tax collector. Instead, she sees herself as the steward of Charlottesville's multi-million-dollar nest eggs. And handling municipal monies apparently runs in her family: Her grandfather was treasurer of Prince William County back in the 1920s.
Young Jennifer didn't start out to be the tax collector. She was working on a degree in nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when she made a life-changing discovery: "Sick people really got on my nerves," she says.
It was pretty much by happenstance she started doing bookkeeping-type jobs. She started working for the City in the Commissioner of Revenue's office almost 30 years ago, and then moved on to purchasing. And when long-time city treasurer Gene Harding retired in 1993, he tapped her to run, which she did, unopposed, and has been doing since.
Brown is a constitutional officer. Unlike city councilors or delegates, who must support themselves as well as govern, being treasurer is her day job.
"This office handles all the money that comes through the city," says Brown. She decides where to put the city's $72 million retirement fund– or at least who will manage it. And the $35 to $40 million in "idle funds."
With all the high finance, there's one aspect of her job that consistently irks the electorate: parking tickets. Brown's office takes in the payments for all bills, including tickets, and she's heard plenty of complaints over the years. "One thing about being elected," she points out, "if you want to come in and yell at me, you can.
"I hate parking tickets, too," she adds.
Brown's office is braced for verbal abuse, but there's one thing she won't do: negotiate.
"People think we make the law instead of just follow it," she says. That means, tell somebody else your sad story of how you were only parked in the loading zone for five minutes. That's what Brown calls the "art of the necessary no."
Not surprisingly, the treasurer's worst nightmare is that someone might embezzle money. The city's AAA rating is "a huge deal," Brown says, and a symbol of its fiscal responsibility. Every day, the books are balanced, especially now when several million dollars a day are coming in. And largest amount they've ever been off? "We don't do 'off,'" she says.
Brown clears up one other common misperception naïve citizens often ask about city workers: Yes, they do have to pay taxes.
Why here? I came by chance and stayed by choice.
What's worst about living here? Not enough shoe stores
Favorite hangout? C&O or Blue Bird Café
Most overrated virtue? Not sure there is one. My favorite quote about virtues is by Winston Churchill– "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."
People would be surprised to know: I would like to write children's stories.
What would you change about yourself? My height
Proudest accomplishment? Becoming city treasurer
People find most annoying about you: I carry on several conversations at one time and expect people to keep up.
Whom do you admire? Women in politics
Favorite book? First favorite was Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. I've had many other favorites since.
Subject that causes you to rant? Intolerance
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Computers
Biggest 21st-century creep-out? Botox
What do you drive? Pontiac Vibe
In your car CD player right now: Beach music
Next journey? Alaska
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Being run over by a school bus
Regret: When I sing, people cry.
Favorite comfort food: Fried chicken
Always in your refrigerator: Milk
Must-see TV: West Wing
Favorite cartoon: Road Runner
Describe a perfect day. Being at the beach
Walter Mitty fantasy: I'd win the Olympics in women's ice skating.
Who'd play you in the movie? If we're still doing the Walter Mitty thing, Jennifer Aniston.
Most embarrassing moment? Throwing up on a roller coaster
Best advice you ever got? Make the most of the hand you're dealt.
Favorite bumper sticker? "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." New favorite: "Make Levees, Not War."
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO