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Upset election for tax collector prompts job reshuffling

fr davidfrancisA new tax collector has been elected in Haywood County, but when he takes office next month his duties will be substantially less than the outgoing tax collector.

Republican Mike Matthews, who narrowly won the seat, will also earn less than the outgoing tax collector — a salary more in keeping with a narrower job scope. While county commissioners have no say over who voters elected for the job, they do have some say over his salary and the breadth of his duties. 

The outgoing tax collector, David Francis, was making $78,000 — far more than the base county salary for tax collector, which is $51,000. 

That’s because Francis was not just the tax collector, but also the county tax administrator. Francis was promoted that position in 2007, a far more encompassing role than just tax collector. Francis had a management role over 27 employees and four departments, including the property appraisal unit, tax assessor’s office and land records.

The definition of tax collector is much narrow, however.

“I don’t think Mr. Matthews would have the ability or skill to serve as tax administrator. That takes a long time of knowing your way around the block to do that,” Francis said.

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Matthews said that he assumed when he ran that he would get Francis’ old job — lock, stock and barrel. He assumed the position on the ballot was Francis’ position, and didn’t know that tax collector was actually a lesser role than tax administrator.

SEE ALSO: New tax collector had to have wages garnished

“My impression was it was one and the same with just a different title,” Matthews said. “I think most people thought when they were going to the polls they were voting on David Francis’ position.”

If commissioners do something different, that will be up to them to justify, Matthews said.

“They are the ones that have to deal with the voters on that,” Matthews said. “I don’t know what they are going to do.”

Commissioners have yet to say what Matthews’ salary will be, but could do so at their meeting next week. As far as his duties, he will assume the lesser role of tax collector. The title of tax administrator doesn’t automatically come with it.

“My way of thinking is it resets back to the statutory job of a tax collector,” said Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger. “You have the tax collector, which was on the ballot, and the tax administrator, which was not on the ballot.”

The role of tax administrator had been assigned to Francis as an individual, Swanger said. A new tax collector coming on board is not automatically anointed with those same duties.

County Manager Ira Dove pointed out that Francis was the tax collector for nine years — from 1998 to 2007 — before assuming the title and duties of tax administrator.

No vote is required to strip Matthews of the tax administrator title, since he never had that title in the first place, Swanger said. That’s a position he would have to be explicitly hired for, and the county hasn’t hired him for that, Swanger said.

With his scope limited to the tax collection office, Matthews won’t oversee the 27 employees across four departments as Francis did. There are only five employees in the tax collector’s office itself.

That begs the question, however. Will the county have a tax administrator at all overseeing those other departments? There’s myriad ways the county could handle that.

There may be no one serving in the tax administrator role at all. The other departments would report directly to the county manager, with no intermediary supervisor. Or, the county could continue to have a tax administrator, but name someone other than Matthews to the role.

 

A strange arrangement

Haywood County is the only county in the state that still has an elected tax collector. Historically, it was the norm. But other counties — all but Haywood, in fact — have abandoned an elected tax collector. That person is simply a county employee, hired and fired by the county manager.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said Haywood should have done the same. The position is an administrative one, not a political one.

Commissioners even discussed making the change a couple of years ago, and ran it up the flagpole with the Haywood Democratic and Republican parties for their take on it.

“It just fell by the wayside, but both the local parties had agreed to it. That’s what should happen,” Swanger said.

A bill would have to be introduced in the General Assembly to end the practice of an elected tax collector in Haywood.

Technically, Matthews can’t be fired by Dove. But there is a clause that allows an elected official who works within county government — such as the register of deeds — to be fired if there’s good cause, although there’s myriad hoops to jump through.

 

A big job

The role of tax collector is extremely important to the county’s well-being, Francis said.

The county brought in $39 million in property taxes last year. The collection rate was 96.85 percent on real estate, personal and business property taxes — which is the state average.

Just a 1 percent drop in the tax collection rate would take a $400,000 bite out of the county budget.

Despite Matthews’ lack of experience, County Manager Ira Dove said the county will do whatever it takes to ensure Matthews performs his job well.

“We have a good team here that is committed to making it work. If he can’t do his job everybody loses. We will provide him the tools to do his job and the training he needs,” Dove said. “We are going to work with him to help him be successful.

It’s simply not an option to see tax collections suffer.

“This is a large portion of the revenue for the county. If you fall short in collections, you don’t have the money to do the services,” Dove said.

Dove nor Swanger would answer when asked if they were concerned about an inexperienced tax collector taking office.

“There was an election held and he won,” Swanger said. “It is our job as commissioners to give him the tools to be successful and we will do that.”

Swanger added that he was “very comfortable” with Francis’ performance.

“I had every confidence he would collect at a high rate,” Swanger said.

When Matthews met with Swanger and Dove, he told them he was ready for the challenge.

“I told him the expectation is that the collection rate stay at least the same, if not improve. He understood that and accepted it as his goal,” Swanger recounted.

Matthews said he believes he can do the job and isn’t nervous about it.

“I am a little overwhelmed maybe, but I am not nervous,” Matthews said.

Matthews is coming on board during one of the busiest and most critical months of the year. Property taxes are due Dec. 31.

But less than 90 percent of the property taxes are actually paid on time by the end of December. During the months that follow, the tax collector must prove his mettle.

“The busiest month of the year is December. The second busiest is January,” Francis said.

It’s an uphill fight to get the collection rate from 90 percent, where it hovers in early January, to the 97 percent benchmark by June, when the budget year ends.

“Haywood County has one of the lowest property tax rates in the state. What helps keep that tax rate low is having a high collection rate,” Francis said.

Francis said you can’t be a pushover. Francis has even foreclosed on his own relatives to force property tax collections.

Matthews said he was a collection agent for a credit card company in Atlanta after college, but that was a different sort of gig, and he doesn’t remember much about it because it was so long ago.

“I am sitting across a desk from people who are my neighbors, not someone in California on the other end of the phone. These are our neighbors. We have to figure out a way to make this beneficial for the county and for them,” Matthews said.

As for what Francis will miss most about his job? Hint: it’s not sending nasty letters to delinquent taxpayers, threatening to garnish their wages if they don’t pay up, or foreclosing on their property if they stiff on their tax bill.

Instead, Francis will miss being in the busy, main thoroughfare of the historic courthouse.

“The interaction you have with the public,” Francis said. There are a lot of super nice folks here. I will miss that daily contact.”

When asked what he would do his first day on the job, Matthews said, “Probably a lot of paperwork.”

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