LITTLE VALLEY — With 28 years on the job, Cattaraugus County Treasurer Joseph G. Keller of Olean is believed to be the longest-serving elected official in the county.
The longest-serving county treasurer prior to Keller was Richard Farnham, who held the office for 23 years from 1927 to 1950.
Keller, first elected treasurer in 1992, did not seek re-election this year. His son, Matthew Keller, who has served as deputy treasurer for the past five years, was elected to a four-year term as treasurer in November.
Keller is a former Olean city alderman from Ward 10 — the Boardmanville area. He ran for the Common Council after local businessman Louis Magnano, his boss at Blue Bird Coach Lines and the Ward 10 alderman, decided not to seek re-election and urged Keller to run for the seat.
While Keller was serving his third term on the Common Council, County Legislator E. Neal Teachman died in office. Keller was named to the vacant seat on the County Legislature.
Keller served for 3½ years in Little Valley before he was defeated for re-election.
In October 1991, County Treasurer Orville Johnston announced he would not complete his term.
“I was in the hospital at the time and I told my wife Peggy that was something I was interested in,” Keller said. “I was running for Ward 4 alderman at the time.”
Then-Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed Democrat Merton Bernham county treasurer. Keller got the Republican nomination for the upcoming election and in November 1992 defeated Bernham at the polls. Four years later, Keller was challenged by a well-known former Democratic treasurer Barbara Edwards. Keller won.
Only once was Keller cross-endorsed by Democrats. In the other elections, he ran without a Democratic challenger.
“I knew the county finances and had served with many of the county legislators,” Keller said.
Soon after he was sworn in on Jan. 1, 1993, Keller was presented with the property tax foreclosure list. There was a process, he said — the treasurer reviewed properties for the auction and told any residents they would need to move.
“I was hopping around the first six months trying to figure out what was going on,” he said. “Department heads helped me out and it was a smooth transition.”
The first big undertaking given to the new county treasurer was a survey of all fixed assets. Keller proposed the first use by the county of a purchase card that eliminated the need for petty cash in departments. It was a restricted credit card. Later came the bed tax on hotel rooms. Next, the Treasurer’s Office took over the payroll department.
In later years, the county’s use of New World accounting software provided a smooth flow of financial information across departments from the budget officer, Keller said.
Keller said he was proud of the upgrades in the county’s bond rating that have occurred under his watch. Staff who rate the bonds for Moody’s ask questions of the treasurer, real property tax services and the county administrator’s office.
“You have to be prepared for anything,” he said.
The upgrading of the county’s bond rating has saved millions in interest.
The year 2020 has been a challenge, but the Treasurer’s Office remained open safely, Keller said.
The treasurer said he often speaks to people who have gotten behind in their property taxes.
“When people are having a problem and you talk to them and help them save their property,” he said, “I enjoy that. Sometimes they have the wrong information. If you call in early enough, we can give some suggestions.”
Keller recalls receiving a National Association of Counties award in 1993 for the process the his office used to bring the 32 towns together in a more efficient tax collection system. “It was one of the first” instances of this, he said. “It’s much more efficient.”
Keller said the county has seen the number of property tax foreclosures go down in recent years. One reason for that is that the county Legislature changed from three years to two the number of years of unpaid taxes to trigger a foreclosure.
It’s not as hard to recover from paying two years back taxes, penalties and interest as it is three years, Keller said. His office sends out notices to deliquent taxpayers and publishes lists in the newspaper of taxpayers who owe back taxes.
In the past five years, the Cattaraugus County Land Bank, on which Keller sits as treasurer, has begun taking over foreclosed properties, fixing them up and selling them. If properties are too blighted, they can be demolished and the property sold to neighbors.
Keller’s son has followed a similar career path. He is a former Olean alderman and sat on the County Legislature.
“It’s kind of nice working with him,” Keller said of his son, Matthew. “We’re making $1.5 million a year in interest for the county.”
The younger Keller also took charge of collecting the county’s occupancy or bed tax from a growing source of rentals: Airbnb. Neither Airbnb or VRBO, the other popular internet rental company, collected the bed tax from owners.
Since then, Airbnb has agreed to collect that tax and relay it to the county. VRBO still does not collect the tax, although the county has identified most VRBO owners in the county and contacts them directly, according to Keller.
“He nearly doubled the revenue” we were getting from owners, Keller said of his son.
“We’ve got a great staff,” said Keller. “They have always made my job easier.” There are currently three accountants, two in payroll, and four people who deal with the public every day; a deputy and someone in the Olean office.
In his last year in office, Keller negotiated an agreement with the city of Olean to end collecting county taxes by the Olean City Clerk’s Office. The taxes will instead be paid at the County Office Building on Buffalo Street. “We talked about it for a long time,” he said.
Looking back on 28 years in the county treasurer’s office, Keller said, “I enjoyed getting up every day and coming into work.”