Haywood looks to turn tax collector into appointed position

Haywood County Tax Collector Mike Matthews has been a lightning rod for controversy since before he narrowly defeated veteran incumbent David Francis in the 2014 election.

As a Maggie Valley alderman, he was one of just two elected officials countywide to oppose the Tourism Development Authority’s 2013 proposed occupancy tax increase, which failed at the state level. Since taking county office, he’s been labeled as nearly unbondable, dogged with accusations of absenteeism, criticized for his collections performance, and chided for several vehicular citations. 

On Feb. 6, the Haywood County Board of Commissioners took up a resolution to change the tax collector position from an elected post to an appointed one. Haywood County has the only remaining elected tax collector in any of North Carolina’s 100 counties. 

Although no action was taken on the resolution at the marathon six-hour meeting, commissioners were candid with their gripes while they waited about an hour for Matthews to produce a requested tax delinquency report. 

It’s clear a showdown appears imminent, and while the Democrat-majority commission says it’s not about the brash young Republican currently in the position, Matthews feels differently. 

He also feels like he’s never truly had his say — until now. 

Smoky Mountain News: We had an interesting day in the old courthouse today. How are you feeling?

Mike Matthews: Honestly, I’m upfront with the numbers. All the rest of this stuff is bullshit. That resolution today, or what they attempted to do today — did they actually do it? I wasn’t in there when it came down. 

SMN: No, [Haywood County Commissioner] Brandon Rogers said that he thought citizens should have more of a chance to weigh in, and [commissioner] Kevin Ensley said he was prepared to vote but wanted to err on the side of transparency. Chairman Kirkpatrick seemed to agree with that, but [commissioners] Mike Sorrells and Bill Upton seemed ready to roll, saying that the public has been commenting on this issue for a few years now. 

Apparently, at the next meeting they’re not going to have a public hearing but anyone who wants to speak during the customary public comments portion of the meeting, that’s their time to do so. Nothing has been done, and nothing will be done until next time [Feb. 20]. 

So on that subject, why are they doing this? Why are they attempting to pass this resolution?

MM: I know exactly why. Since I won the election, they’ve been bitter ever since. And they felt the exact opposite way right before the election because there’s a handful of people that went to them and said “Why is this even elected any more?” And they fought and fought and fought for it. The election didn’t go the way they wanted to go, so they went this route with it. 

And I could go either way with it — I can see either side of it. As far as me doing this again for another four years? I mean, I’m struggling if I want to do it again for another two years. So it means nothing to me whether they do it or not. 

SMN: Do you think this reflects more on them than on you?

MM: The fact is that this is one more thing that they’re trying to take away from the voters — the voters, they voted. They went out and voted for a change. The commissioners didn’t like the way it went apparently, and now they are saying, “Well, we know better than what you do, so we’re going to go ahead and switch it.” That’s what they’re trying to do. 

SMN: You defeated David Francis, who’s a Democrat, right?

MM: Right. 

SMN: And that’s a partisan election, right? 

MM: It is a partisan election. 

SMN: So you’re saying they didn’t like the way it went, but you’ve got a Republican on there in Kevin Ensley, and he’s sided with them as well. So is this a partisan thing or a personal thing?

MM: Kevin Ensley’s not even remotely a Republican. He is the furthest thing from a Republican that I’ve ever met. I could see this position being non–partisan, and that’s fine. And I could see making it an appointed position, which is fine if you had a board you could trust enough to appoint the right person. 

SMN: You don’t think this board could do that?

MM: I’m still up in the air with one, maybe two, but the majority, no. They haven’t done it before. Their biggest gripe with me right now is how I’m choosing to do the collections. But they can’t argue my numbers. My numbers are better than they’ve ever been. My current collection rates the past two years have been 97 percent plus. That’s better than the past 10 years or more and the only reason I say 10 years is that’s as far back as I’ve gone to look. This whole time, keeping a 97 percent rate, my delinquent balance I’m carrying over every year is lower than it’s been in 10 years. 

The numbers that they’re coming out and saying are bad or lower than before are the enforced collections — where I’m going out and attaching somebody’s bank account, or garnishing somebody’s paycheck, or foreclosing on somebody’s house. I didn’t run on that. I will do it as a last measure, or a last result, if I can’t get in contact with somebody or that sort of thing — that’s what we do. 

But what I will do, right off the bat is call, reach out to people, work out a plan that we can get their taxes paid, then the county still gets some money and these people don’t lose their house, or whatever the case may be. And it’s working. 

Their biggest gripe is foreclosures — that I’m not doing them. I will do a few, if I have to as a last resort. I haven’t kicked anybody out of their house yet, and I don’t intend to — unless I have to, as a last resort. 

The gripe that I have, and you could speculate on this however you want to, is that it’s a revenue stream that they’re not able to purchase, their friends aren’t able to purchase, or however — they’re losing income off of this somehow. That’s been their biggest gripe. If they can’t benefit off a foreclosure, that’s what they’re mad about. And it’s not going to happen. I’m not going to do it. 

SMN: And you’ve said that in board meetings, that you’re not going out there and attaching or garnishing or seizing property. 

MM: Until a last resort — I’ll do it, but it’s a last resort. They have that mentality that ‘I’m going to beat you over the head and take it from you’ as opposed to giving you a call and saying, “Hey, what can we work out?” That’s what I’ve been trying to do. When I ran, I said it’s time for us to start treating our taxpayers like the neighbors they are, as opposed to just a dollar sign. That’s the approach I’m taking and it’s worked. 

SMN: Ensley’s said people have a problem with you not being in your office. 

MM: Ensley keeps mentioning these constituent concerns that he gets. As far as I’m concerned, if that’s the case, Ensley is not doing his job, because he has not once come to me and said, “Hey, this is what I’m hearing.” 

Instead, he takes a couple minutes out of a meeting to ambush me on it. If he’s hearing constituent concerns — if I was complaining to my commissioner, and my commissioner’s not going to the person to find out what’s going on, I would be upset. He’s not doing his job. 

When I have people call me at the office and say, “I talked to this tax clerk, she was rude, she wasn’t there, she wasn’t paying attention to me,” I address it. I don’t wait until a meeting and throw a couple digs here and there but never once directly address it. Ensley’s not doing his job, and if anybody else is getting those complaints, they’re not doing their job either. 

SMN: At the same time, Chairman Kirkpatrick says the county doesn’t have any control over the hours you work, and since you’re an elected official, they don’t have the kind of control they seek. How do you feel, moving forward — should they have that control over this position?

MM: I can go either way with it. Honestly, I think giving them that control, it takes it away from the voters. 

SMN: But voters in 99 of 100 North Carolina counties don’t get to elect their tax collector. 

MM: I get that. Like I’m saying, I could go either way with it. I could — if you had a board that you could trust to do it correctly.

SMN: Commissioner Sorrells says this is an integrity issue, and that you have brought question upon the integrity of this office. What would you say to him about that?

MM: Honestly, how? Again, these little things they keep coming up with, they tell me nothing about it. I don’t know how to respond to that question. The integrity and the morals and values that I have, I’m here to help people. I’m not here to benefit financially or anything else. I’m here to help people in the community and I have. And I have. 

SMN: I don’t know what your trade or profession is, but is this job a step back for you, professionally or financially?

MM: Financially, absolutely. 

SMN: They usually are. But even professionally, if you have professional goals…

MM: I would say professionally, too. Professionally and financially. This is a huge step backwards for me. 

SMN: Now this [resolution to make Matthews’ position appointed, rather than elected] has to go to Raleigh, and you’ve said you have supporters in Raleigh. Who are those supporters?

MM: [Republican N.C. State Senator] Jim Davis — if he were to introduce a bill, I can’t fault him for introducing a bill. If he’s asked to do it, he should. If there’s business at a local level, and he’s their representative, then he absolutely should do it. And if it wasn’t for the circumstances of why they’re trying to do this, everyone in Raleigh should vote in favor of it. The only reason they’re doing this is there was an election, they didn’t like who won, and now they’re trying to take it away. 

If Michele [Presnell, Republican N.C. State Representative] was in favor of it, I could not blame her but for how they’re trying to do it. They fought against it. They just fought against this. 

SMN: There are still persistent claims though — a civil action, unpaid tax bill, all these other things that they’re bringing against you, the issue with the bonding company, the integrity of this person is not good for the office — they keep saying that. But you keep coming back with facts about your performance and your 97 percent being very good. 

MM: As far as the unpaid tax thing I talked about was, I sold a house 15 years ago, moved to Florida, and didn’t get a bill. It was $300. I get it – I mean I understand. I’m not denying the fact that was there. But when I got the bill I took care of it. You know what? I’m 37 years old, and if one of the craziest things you could find on me that I’ve done was an unpaid tax bill 20 years ago, I feel like I’m doing alright with my life. 

SMN: I can’t argue with you there, but the driver’s license stuff there too, again, they continue to dump this stuff on you…

MM: They’re going to dump whatever they can, and honestly, I’m not even going to validate it with a response, because as far as I’m concerned, your story — the story needs to be what it is to sell papers. As far as the commissioners go and as far as my job goes, once my numbers start slipping, then we have issues. 

SMN: If there’s anything you want to say or anything I haven’t asked you that you think is important, now’s your chance to spill it. 

MM: I’ve got so many things going through my mind right now, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it, to be honest with you. It’s just absolutely ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. If they want to make it an appointed position, and they want to extend that resolution, fine — do it. That’s fine with me. I have no qualms. The fact of how they’re doing it is what I have an issue with. It’s just one more thing they’re taking away from the voters.  

If we were failing at our job… look at what I have done — not me, my office — has done in the past two years with a limited staff, we’re probably one of the lowest-paid departments in the county, including myself, which is fine. They get no credit for anything. Imagine what we could accomplish or achieve if I wasn’t constantly having to fight them. And I’m fighting them for no reason other than they want to be able to say ‘I told you so.’ Well, if they wanted to be able to say ‘I told you so’ they should have done something during the election to keep me out — not after the fact. 

We played a game, I won the game, now they’re trying to change the rules after the fact. 

Honestly, I’ve never had the greatest — the media here, I don’t feel that you’re that way — but I do know that you work for somebody, and the media here, they’re stuck with the commissioners for whatever reason. That regime, they have such a tight grip on everything going on there. And up until — and I’m hoping it changes at this point — up until this point I’ve had no outlet to say anything because it’s going to get skewed. 

As of January 31, we have collected roughly 91.5 percent of the taxes for the year, and I’ve still got until June 30 to go with it. Hell, I can think of years David Francis didn’t do 91 percent of the taxes even until June 30. I could stop collecting delinquent taxes today — which I’m not going to do — and my numbers would still be better than some of his, and I’ve got until June 30 to do it. 

And it has nothing to do with David Francis — it just happens to be the office, and he just happens to be the person before me. I’m not saying anything negative about him. I like him personally. 

But if I wasn’t doing the job, and my office wasn’t performing, absolutely — they should be coming after me the way they are. But to do this because they don’t like me is ridiculous. 

And as far as the appointed thing, that just frees me up to run against Kevin Ensley.

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