Phillips says he answers to public, not political party or county commissioners
Controller Tony Phillips says he has more than 90,000 bosses - the residents of Northumberland County. He is guided by them, not party or politics, he said.
"I really don't care if my vote offends my political party or the board of commissioners," Phillips said. "I was elected as controller for Northumberland County, not just the Republican Party or certain interest groups. I'm working for the taxpayer, not the county."
Phillips, 39, of Upper Augusta Township, is seeking his first four-year term as controller after being elected in 2011 to replace Chuck Erdman, a fellow Republican who resigned to take a state job.
Phillips said he takes much of his political and life lessons from his great uncle, former state Rep. Merle Phillips (R-108), a veteran of 30 years in the Pennsylvania legislature who ended his career with one year as a county commissioner.
"The best advice he has given me, bar none, for politics, is you are an employee of the people," Phillips said. "You need to listen to what the people want."
The controller is often called the fiscal watchdog, but few truly understand the position, Phillips said.
"You're not just an accountant, you're not just an auditor," he said.
A controller must understand and monitor every funding stream for every department, and monitor the county's $76 million in investments.
If no one keeps a close watch on these matters, it wouldn't take long for the county to "spiral out of control," he said.
While there are a number of positions that deal with county finances, controller is different, for example, from that of the budget director, who handles the finances of the commissioners' office directly.
"He's an employee of the commissioners; the controller is an independent watchdog," Phillips said. Controller represents the "final check" between the commissioners or other departments and the taxpayers, he said.
Phillips said the five-year plan put in place last year to fix the county's cash-flow problems is working. The county had an operating profit in 2012 for the first time since 2006, and lowered its deficit from $1.9 million to $1.6 million.
"I'm proud of that, but I don't take credit for that," he said. "That's everybody paying close attention to their budgets and not spending money they don't need to spend."
Also, he noted, the amount of audit findings by the county's independent auditors dropped from 19 in 2011 to two in 2012.
Salary cut debate
Unlike last time he ran, Phillips has opposition this election from Christopher Grayson, a businessman and tax collector in Mount Carmel.
He's also battling criticism from within his own party and some in the public for controller being the only row office to escape salary cuts of 42 to 48 percent, which become effective Jan. 1.
Phillips stresses that the vote to keep the salary at $56,676 was made for the position, not the individual.
"This isn't Tony Phillips' salary," he said. "This is the salary for the controller. Whoever wins in November will get that salary. I'd be making a huge assumption to say it's my salary."
At the Oct. 1 meeting at which the cuts were approved and again in this election interview, he said he believes the cuts were too deep. He had suggested commissioners make cuts of 10 percent for every position.
"It would have saved the county a fair amount of money and it could have showed the taxpayers that we're all in this and we're serious about this, too," he said.
Phillips said he didn't discuss the salary cuts with Commissioners Stephen Bridy and Vinny Clausi, who voted in favor of the move, before the meeting, but did forward them a list of controller salaries in the state that shows Northumberland County's is second lowest for of the seven fifth-class counties.
The health care contributions for all row offices were increased to 50 percent of the county's cost, but Phillips said he is covered by his wife's insurance.
As for the impact of the cuts on the working environment, he said he doesn't have much interaction with the majority of row officers. Regardless, he said he doesn't expect a problem for county operations.
"I don't see them all headed for the hills, because I don't think they were in it for the money anyway," he said.
Relationship with Clausi
Phillips said he is questioned often about his relationship with Clausi, in part because he's a Republican and the commissioner is a Democrat, and also in light of the salary cut vote. He acknowledged Clausi has been the source of concern for some, but believes the commissioner cares about taxpayers.
Phillips cited an incident from 2011 in which he went on the radio and said it looked like the county would be facing a $3 million shortfall. He said then-Commissioner Chairman Frank Sawicki was not pleased with broadcasting such information. But Clausi came into his office the next day to tell him it was OK, and to "always tell people the right thing."
"That stuck with me," Phillips said. "If this guy took time out of his schedule to come and talk to the controller, who generally doesn't get along with the commissioners, this is a guy who cares about what he's doing."
Further addressing his political neutrality, Phillips said his six full- and part-time controller staff are split equally between Republicans and Democrats. He said he hires by ability, not party affiliation.
Phillips worked in the county's juvenile court system out of college, then left to work at Nottingham Village in Northumberland, where he became senior administrator before returning to the county after five years to work in the planning department. When administration changed, he left for a short time to work at Shamokin Area Community Hospital, but then took Erdman's offer to come on board as deputy controller, a post he held from 2008 until he was promoted through election in 2011.
Phillips said he didn't fill himself on the controller staff, instead splitting the duties among himself and existing workers. a savings of $70,000.
"I believe in a smaller, streamlined government," he said. "I can help make government more efficient - by combining positions, multi-tasking, cross training."
He said he is working to get all county financial journal entries online to save money and improve efficiency, and the office now accepts electronic payments for the same reasons.
He said he's introduced a procurement card system that allows the county to get cash back every time a credit card is used and that he's rebuilding the county's accounting manual.
He said he is a full-time controller who is on duty every day while the office is open, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., unless he's on vacation. He said he often works later, especially during crunch times.
Overall, Phillips said he enjoys working in the county and hopes to be re-elected.
"I feel like I'm making a difference, and that's why I'm looking for re-election," he said.
Phillips is a graduate of the Line Mountain School District and Bloomsburg University. He and his wife of 13 years, Erin (Moyer) Phillips, a teacher in the Shikellamy School District, have a daughter, Emily, 7.