Thursday, May 7, 2015

Hunt for the Treasure Hunt: Bill allows it online

Posted By on Thu, May 7, 2015 at 1:49 PM

click to enlarge The Arkansas auditor' office is now directing folks to the Great Arkansas Treasure Hunt through Facebook (above) and its own webpage.
  • The Arkansas auditor' office is now directing folks to the Great Arkansas Treasure Hunt through Facebook (above) and its own webpage.

The state auditor's office will no longer continue the practice, begun in 1970, of publishing in newspapers names of people with unclaimed property, also known as the "Great Arkansas Treasure Hunt." Auditor Andrea Lea will instead publish a notice in the paper directing people to the auditor's Great Treasure Hunt website.

The decision not to publish all the names — pages and pages of advertising — will be a blow to newspapers' revenue, and the Arkansas Press Association is  urging its members to contact their legislators to let them know the decision will not only cost them money but "is a bad idea if we are truly interested in returning unclaimed property to rightful owners."

But legislators are already aware. Act 592 of 2015, introduced in the House by Rep. Camille Bennett, D-Lonoke, at Andrea Lea's request, requires the auditor to advertise in a newspaper in each county, "in a form that, in the judgment of the administrator, is likely to attract the attention of the apparent owner potential owners of the unclaimed property." It removes language that required the advertisement to include names and addresses. Now, the office will take out advertising that directs people to the website to see if their name is on the list. The auditor's Facebook page also includes a link to the page, and asks, "Stock, bonds, jewelry, checks, and more! What will you find when you search your name?" What was found in April: $1,480,533.73. 

Like others in the business, I'm guessing, I was unaware of Act 592. In response to a call to the auditor's office, I got a note from Lea today saying she'd also received a call from the Press Association, and had seen the APA email to members. She wrote, "I was surprised I had not heard from them previously specifically when the bill was presented and voted on during the session. As you probably already know from your research, the bill passed with 93 in House and 31 in the Senate. No one spoke against the bill in committee nor on the floor. Having chaired State Agencies in the past myself, I was very surprised that no one from the press testified. My experience was quite different."

Lea passed along an email she sent to legislators yesterday about the press' concerns: 

Legislators,

Several of you have contacted me after receiving a call or email from your newspaper regarding ACT 592 ‘TO AMEND THE LAW CONCERNING ABANDONED PROPERTY; AND TO ALTER THE METHOD BY WHICH NOTICE OF THE ABANDONMENT OF PROPERTY IS PUBLISHED’.

As Representative Bennett and Senator Hutchinson pointed out when they presented the bill, it is an effort to refocus the money spent on reaching people with unclaimed property. We wanted to be more effective with our ad dollars. At no time while this bill was making its way through the legislature was any concern voiced to me. My first contact with the Press Association was yesterday.

During the turnover from the previous administration, they stated that the one thing they would change if given the opportunity is revising this law. They were discovering more effective ways to spend their ad monies. This prompted me to examine the issue and to reach out to legislators to make this change.

People are very mobile and the original law did not take that into consideration. The law required ads to be run in the county of the owner’s residency at the time when the unclaimed property originated. This resulted in many full pages of lists of names and addresses. However, a great number of the names and addresses were obsolete – one of the reasons some of the owners couldn’t be found! The property owners would be in another state or another county and never see the ad. The old method of property listing cost the taxpayers almost $220,000 in 2014 – with only limited success. The new method puts a statewide listing in each courthouse and on our website, and is more accurate and complete.

The law still mandates that our office advertise in a newspaper in each county. The change was that we would not list all names and addresses. The only notice mandated by law is that of newspaper publication. No other media, including radio or TV, is included. And yes, radio stations have taken note of that and I have received requests from them.

As you know, the times they are a changing. Since 1997 we have seen many pieces of legislation changing how the state reports, notifies, posts announcements etc. All the changes have moved away from print.

We have continued with changing up our outreach methods to see what is most effective. We have used TV, radio, Facebook, public gatherings, senior centers and direct mail. We are definitely not hiding any information. The online filings have risen 8% just since we started in January. That tells us that people have access and use the Internet to file for their property. I have reached out to libraries about putting flyers by their public computers.

Finally, my mission is to return property to the rightful owners. I want to do that in the most effective and efficient way possible. Since taking this position I have devoted my time to analyzing how best to do this. We will continue to adjust to meet the mission.

Thank you,

Andrea Lea
Arkansas Auditor of State
State Capitol, Suite 230
(501) 682-6030

UPDATE: Lea says the Department of Finance and Administration was the first agency to publish the list. The auditor's office took over in the 1980s, she said.

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