Treasurer not fully following law

By CHARLIE SMITH,

State Treasurer Lynn Fitch apparently finds it burdensome to follow the laws of the great state of Mississippi. She issued an insolent press release Monday backhandedly touting publication of unclaimed property notice in some newspapers, while at the same time bellyaching at having to follow the law on publishing such notice and insulting an industry that keeps hundreds of thousands of Mississippians informed.

The worst part, though, is that Fitch doesn’t even follow the requirements of the statute she complains about.

Here’s the background: State law requires notice every third year to people who are owed money for things like old utility deposits, bank accounts and life insurance. Mississippi Code Annotated 89-12-27 says “the Treasurer shall cause notice to be published in a newspaper having general circulation in the county of this state in which is located the last-known address of any person to be named in the notice.” It adds some clarification, including not requiring notification on amounts less than $100.

Fitch last ran the notice in 2015, but only after the Mississippi Press Association threatened to sue despite the law being crystal clear on her duties. Then she published it again beginning last week in “about 30 daily and weekly newspapers,” according to a press release. Mind you there are newspapers representing all 82 counties, not just 30 or so.

She also touted events where people can check to see if they’re owed money and said her office has distributed more than $80 million since 2012.

“The beauty of these events — as well as the online search engine I have on my website — is that they cost taxpayers little to nothing and clearly have big returns for the people,” Fitch’s release said. “The newspaper publication, on the other hand, costs about $100,000 to $150,000. And, while the publication is stale and dated the moment it is printed, the search engine, the events, and other outreach we do are dynamic and reflect all current property at the very moment a citizen is searching.”

Fitch goes on to urge the legislature to change the law.

 Yet it’s questionable whether those events cost “little to nothing.” Fitch or her staff have to travel to different cities; does she factor in the value of their time, gas and other expenses with the relative number of people reached? Along the same lines, how much does it cost to build and maintain that website? Then have you measured that against the number of views? I would suspect that the cost per eyeball reached, when you do that analysis, would show that newspapers are the cheaper option.

And I doubt there’s significant difference in the six weeks from the printing deadline to publication, although Fitch’s chief of staff, Michelle Williams, disagreed with me on that in a phone conversation this week.

Most importantly, Fitch did not publish the list to every county even though the law says she “shall” do so. I know that because it was not published in The Columbian-Progress, despite there being many people from Marion County listed in the notice (I counted 22 in last names just covering A to D).

Williams says the law requiring publication is old, dating to the 1980s, and that the treasurer doesn’t have enough money for statewide distribution. But the law is the law, and I bet they’d find the funds if the state’s newspapers threatened to sue again for ignoring it.

The sad part of this is I had a reader call me last week asking when the list would publish because she heard Fitch talking about it on the radio. What other advertising is so liked that people call the media company asking for the ad to be published? That’s the power of newspapers, something Fitch misses.

A pity she’s not planning on running again; it would have been an honor to vote against her.