Senate rejects Kelly’s KPERS nominee

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The Kansas Senate on Wednesday refused to confirm Gov. Laura Kelly’s nominee to the state retirement system’s Board of Trustees.

The Senate deadlocked at 19 on the nomination of Kathleen VonAchen, who is the chief financial officer for the Unified Government in Kansas City, Kansas.

VonAchen’s nomination needed 21 votes. Two senators – Republicans Larry Alley of Winfield and Mike Petersen of Wichita – passed on the nomination without voting.

Kathleen VonAchen, nominee for the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System board, testifies before the Senate insurance committee.

It was the third nominee the Senate refused to confirm this session, along with Carl Folsom III for a seat on the Kansas Court of Appeals and Robin Marx for the Kansas Board of Tax Appeals.

The governor’s office declined to comment.

VonAchen had faced questions about her work as a finance officer from 2008 to 2011 for Stockton, California, which declared bankruptcy in 2012 after the housing bubble burst.

Stockton’s financial troubles were blamed on decades of bad fiscal management starting in the 1990s, including decisions to offer generous employee pension plans and benefits while spending lavishly on projects to make the city an appealing Bay Area suburb.

Reuters reported in 2012 that median home prices in Stockton fell to $110,000 in 2009, wiping out a decade of rising property values, causing the city’s general fund revenues to collapse as well.

VonAchen said she joined the city of Stockton at about the same time that the housing bubble reached its zenith.

She told legislators that Stockton officials spent money that drained their emergency reserves, including a $47 million bond issue in 2004 to bankroll a sports arena that was built but ultimately ended up losing money.

VonAchen said she worked with the city’s chief finance officer to convey the importance of reducing the size of Stockton’s police and fire departments as well as renegotiating union contracts to save the city money.

“Stockton couldn’t handle it,” VonAchen said of the labor expenses. “It took a long time for them to realize that they were in trouble.

“There were a lot of issues at Stockton,” she said.

“Ultimately the people that I reported to and to the council, some of those decisions led them into the position they ended up being (in) once I left,” she said.

Republican state Sen. Molly Baumgardner expressed concerns about why VonAchen recommended a reduction in force for law enforcement in Stockton.

Baumgardner said she was unhappy with the answers that VonAchen provided lawmakers about what led to those recomendations.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Pittman said VonAchen’s testimony to the Senate insurance committee wasn’t “stellar,” but said she had a “fantastic” explanation about her experience in Stockton.

“It was right after the 2008 recession, the city had gone on an epic spending spree, you know how they do in California,” Pittman said.

“She sat there as the fiscally responsible voice to the city and tried to come up with solutions as they slowly went into bankruptcy due to the situation the city policymakers had put them,” said Pittman, a member of the insurance committe.

“It was easily defensible for that commentary,” he said. “We didn’t nail her down on any particular question that would make her have an absolute when any number of us could have done that up to this point,” he said.

VonAchen started her career in the late 1980s as a budget analyst in the budget office under former Gov. Mike Hayden.

She worked as a senior public policy analyst for the state of Colorado, budget director for the city of Aspen, Colorado, finance director/treasurer for the city of Evans, Colorado, and deputy director of finance for San Mateo, California.

She’s been with the Unified Government in Kansas City, Kansas, since 2016, where she oversees a staff of more than 60 as chief finance officer.