This election marks the first one in 24 years that Tuolumne County voters will have a choice in who becomes the next treasurer-tax collector.

Three candidates ran for the position in the 1994 primary election, which came down to a November runoff between Del Hodges and Del Ferreira.

Hodges was victorious in the runoff that year and ran unopposed in the 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2010 elections. He served for 18 years before retiring midway through his fifth term in 2013.

Shelley Piech, who served as assistant tax collector at the time, was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to succeed Hodges. She ran unopposed in 2014 and announced late last year that she would retire at the end of the term.

Responsibilities of the treasurer-tax collector include overseeing the county’s banking deposits, managing investment pools and carrying out other financial services for all county departments, schools and special districts.

The position also oversees property tax billing for the same entities.

County voters in the upcoming June 5 primary election will select between two candidates.

Michelle Ronning was the first candidate to enter the race by pulling papers to begin collecting signatures in-lieu of a filing fee on the first day she could in December.

Justin Birtwhistle later put his name in the running after being encouraged to in February by Merv Cancio, who is running for District 3 supervisor.

The two candidates have faced each other at several public forums over the past month, and their exchanges have remained cordial and not as contentious as other competitive local races.

They both say the tone of the race is not by accident, with each choosing to focus on promoting their qualifications as opposed to attacking one another.

Both are registered Republicans, though the office is nonpartisan.

This is also both candidates’ first time running for public office.

The position pays an annual base salary of about $132,700, not including health and retirement benefits.

As of the first pre-election report on campaign finances late last month, Birtwhistle had the edge with $5,700 raised and $4,472.53 spent from Jan. 1 through April 21 compared to Ronning’s $2,648.60 raised and $2,096.03 spent over the same period.

Michelle Ronning

Ronning, 39, of Pine Mountain Lake, has worked in the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s Office as the revenue recovery manager since June 2013.

As second-in-command, Ronning says she has helped in the day-to-day operations of the office’s three departments: tax collection, treasury, and revenue recovery.

Before deciding to run, Ronning said she took about a week to think on it when she heard of Piech’s retirement plans.

“I decided that I do know this office and what it takes to run it, so I’m just as good of a candidate as anyone else — if not better — because I have the office experience,” she said.

Ronning was born and raised in San Jose and often visited Tuolumne County with family and friends while growing up.

After high school at age 18, Ronning got a job at San Jose Harley Davidson where she started out selling clothes and quickly worked her way into the controller’s department.

“They gave me a bank statement to reconcile and that’s when I decided I was going to school for accounting because I just enjoyed it,” she said.

Ronning later took a job as the California district manager for the Washington-based Tony’s Coffee while attending night classes at San Jose City College toward a degree in accounting.

In 2006, Ronning was hired to work in the accounting department at Pine Mountain Lake, a gated community near Groveland, where she had a condo at the time.

She said she handled accounts payable, helped with budgets and managed the fixed assets while working at PML until 2013, when she applied for her current job at the county in 2013.

“There wasn’t much more room to grow (at PML),” she said of why she applied for the job with the county. “I like to be challenged and to stay engaged and learn new things.”
While working at PML, Ronning also took online classes through the Utah-based Western Governors University and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and master’s degree in management and strategy.

Ronning says the biggest challenges she’s tackled in her current role at the county has been learning the inner workings of all three departments, the computer software systems, and the ever-changing laws that govern each of the departments.

However, those are also Ronning’s favorite parts of the job.
“I love that every single day is different,” she said. “Everyday has new challenges.”

Ronning said she had prepared herself for another candidate to enter the race and was glad that one did because she didn’t want the position to just be handed to her, though she acknowledged that campaigning can be stressful.

One of the aspects of seeking election that Ronning said is new to her is the self-promotion that’s involved.

She was recently endorsed in a Letter to the Editor by 11 county employees, seven of whom work directly under her and four from the county Assessor-Recorder’s Office that works closely with the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s Office.

Ronning said she had no knowledge that the employees were planning to pen a letter of support for her and has never asked for any public endorsements.

“I wanted to do this based on my education and experience,” Ronning said.

Birtwhistle is endorsed by both former Treasurer-Tax Collector Del Hodges and Ronning’s boss, Piech.

Ronning said she has not discussed the endorsement of her opponent with Piech because of the nature of their professional relationship.

“We work fine together and I will continue to support her goals until she retires,” Ronning said.

Ronning and her husband, Joe, a roofing contractor, met while in high school and have been married since 2010.

Ronning said she enjoys doing trail runs in her free time and recently completed her second half-marathon.

She and her husband also enjoy traveling and have visited countries throughout the world. They are planning a trip to Croatia this summer.

Justin Birtwhistle

Birtwhistle, 44, of Sonora, works as a licensed certified public accountant for the Sonora firm Wheeler and Egger CPAs.

He has 16 years of experience assisting taxpayers and auditing public agencies and nonprofit organizations, including special districts such as the Tuolumne City Sanitary District and Tuolumne Fire District.

“I think it’s a different perspective,” Birtwhistle said of what his auditing experience would bring to the role of treasurer-tax collector. “I can research best practices and laws, new suggestions, guidelines and keep with all of that to make sure the department is staying on the cutting edge.”

Birtwhistle moved to the county with his family in 1976 when he was 2 and graduated from Sonora High School in 1992, where he met his wife, Gretchen.

They have three children, Madeline, 16, Jack, 14, and Lucy, 6.

The couple married in 2000, the same year that Birtwhistle graduated from University of California, Santa Barbara, with a double major bachelor’s degree in biology and business economics with an emphasis on accounting.

Birtwhistle said he went to college to study music because he and his wife were both members of the Sonora High Golden Regiment Band, but later realized he enjoyed classes like math, statistics, physics and science.

The couple stayed in Santa Barbara for about a year after college until Birtwhistle was laid off from his job when the economy took a downturn after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, so they moved to Citrus Heights where he worked to get his CPA license while commuting by bicycle to his job in Sacramento as an assistant controller for real-estate company.

Birtwhistle said he got his first experience auditing local government agencies while working in Sacramento, where he was assigned to audit the Squaw Valley Public Service District.

The couple moved back to the county in 2006 as their eldest daughter was getting ready to begin school.

“We drove all over California and Oregon to decide where we wanted to live,” he said. “It was obvious we wanted to move back here because it’s by far more beautiful and welcoming than anything else.”

Birtwhistle said being a CPA in a small town has given him the opportunity to wear many different hats.

Different aspects of his job involve preparing individual and business tax returns, helping serve as a liaison between taxpayers and the IRS and Franchise Tax Board, and auditing public entities.

He said he’s spoken to Piech about the duties of the job and was told a major part involves communicating with taxpayers and the community as a whole to make sure they are informed about their obligations and requirements.

“I thought, wow, that’s what I do now except it would be on a larger scale,” Birtwhistle said.

Birtwhistle said he was deep in the middle of tax season when he got a call about mid-February from Cancio, who told him about Piech retiring and suggested that he consider running to replace her.

Cancio said he and District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce met with Birtwhistle at Royce’s office and vetted him for about two hours to make sure he would be a good candidate for the community.

“I thought this would be a great opportunity to use some of my skills to benefit the public,” Birtwhistle said.

Although he doesn’t have as much management experience as his opponent, Birtwhistle said he was told by Piech that the employees of the office are skilled professionals and requires him to be more of a leader than a manager.

Birtwhistle said his first priority has been to set a positive tone for his campaign. He first met Ronning at one of the recent forums and said he would enjoy working with her if he wins.

“I’m so happy she’s able to do this also,” he said.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.



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