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A new tax collector is in town, but the old one isn’t going anywhere, at least for now

fr matthewsThe long-time tax collector in Haywood County was narrowly defeated in the November election, a surprise upset that has sent county leaders into a tailspin the past two weeks.

Haywood County commissioners fear the newly elected tax collector — who has no experience, no training and few qualifications for the position — won’t have any idea what he’s doing or how to do it when he assumes the job in just two weeks.

So Haywood County commissioners have asked the outgoing tax collector David Francis to stay on in a temporary capacity to train the man who beat him. Francis has agreed.

“But for him agreeing to take this on, it would place the county in serious jeopardy,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.

The county brings in $39 million a year in property taxes, which are critical to the county functioning. If the collection rate dips, even slightly, it can leave a big hole in the budget. 

“We have a very critical transition time,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrels.

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If the new tax collector doesn’t get the job done, the county would have to cut the budget or raise the property tax rate to make up for the money not coming in.

“If he is not successful, we will have a very difficult decision to make come budget time,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger.

Mike Matthews, 35, beat Francis after entering the tax collector’s race on somewhat of a whim. Matthews was convinced to run by Republican party operatives, who even paid his candidate fee to get him to run against Francis.

Matthews did no real campaigning of his own and was admittedly surprised he won, a commonly held sentiment throughout the county.

“The general public didn’t realize the importance of that job,” said Shirley Ezell, who turned out in support of Francis at the county commissioner meeting this week. “That’s a monumental task in there folks and it takes someone with experience. If it is not broke don’t fix it.”

Some Republicans have accused county commissioners of partisan cronyism by keeping Francis around after he lost. Terry Ramey said the commissioners aren’t respecting the wishes of voters. Matthews won, and that’s that, Ramey said.

“If he got elected, we ought to be behind him. The commissioners ought to be behind him. The people spoke and they want him in there,” Ramey said.

Philip Wight, a Republican from Maggie Valley, agreed.

“People voted a new path,” Wight said. Wight said he would never hope for a man to lose his job, but Francis was voted out after all.

However, according to commissioners, Matthews has not rebuked the idea of Francis helping him with the learning curve.

“Mr. Matthews has asked for it and Mr. Francis has agreed to provide it,” Kirkpatrick said, relaying the upshot of a meeting with Matthews to form a transition plan. 

Still, commissioners are catching some political heat for keeping their Democratic colleague around the county courthouse after he lost instead of sending him packing. 

“But would that be best for the county?” asked Commissioner Bill Upton. Upton said their job is to look out for the county’s best interest, and not worry how it might play the next time they are up for election.

Sorrells said keeping Francis during the transition is doing Matthews a favor.

“This gives him the best opportunity to succeed,” Sorrells said.

Francis’ institutional knowledge could be even more important given two of the five employees in the tax collection office have officially told the county they are retiring or quitting when Matthews’ comes on, with rumors that more are to come. Matthews would be brand new himself, trying to train other new employees in a job he doesn’t yet understand.

A right-wing faction within the Republican Party sent out a party-wide call for action to pack the commissioners meeting this week in protest of the anticipated move to keep Francis around in some capacity, while reducing the scope of duties Matthews would assume.

But only a dozen showed up — and they were the same vocal critics of county government that show up at most meetings and volley email attacks. 

Meanwhile, supporters of Francis rallied troops of their own, turning out a far more impressive showing of 60 people or so, filling one side of the meeting room.   

Some expressed concern that Matthews’ may not be competent for the job.

“He won’t have any idea what goes on in that office,” agreed Sarah Sherman, sitting one row over.

More is at stake than the county’s property tax collections. The county tax collector collects taxes on behalf of Maggie and Canton, as well as the tax levy that goes to volunteer fire departments. 

“The county collects our taxes for the town of Maggie. I am concerned about that for the future,” said Brenda O’Keefe, the owner of Joey’s Pancake House. “I think this is a very complicated job and it takes a very long time to learn how to do it.”

Matthews has held half a dozen jobs over the past 12 years.

“The fact that he had so many jobs in such a short period of time doesn’t leave me with a lot of confidence to take on such an important position in the county,” O’Keefe said.

Those jobs range from a VIP host at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort to an insurance salesman to a radio advertising salesman. The maximum extent of his financial experience is as a mortgage lender and loan officer for Wachovia in Waynesville.

Ironically, Matthews had been delinquent four times on the property taxes for his and his wife’s vehicles, accruing interest on the past due amount until it was paid. Matthews even had his wages garnished by the county in 2011 to forcibly collect unpaid back property taxes dating to a mobile home he owned a dozen years ago. He owns no property now other than vehicles.

“If he doesn’t pay his own taxes, how can you be tax collector?” asked Stan Arrington, a man in the audience.

“If he can’t take care of his own business, how can he handle the whole county’s business,” asked his wife, Pam Arrington.

 

A dueling role

Francis was not only serving as the tax collector, but also as tax administrator. It has a far more encompassing role than just tax collector.

Francis managed 27 employees and four departments, including the property appraisal unit, tax assessor’s office, land records and mapping — as well as his own department of tax collections.

Francis was promoted to tax administrator in 2007, after nine years of serving in the more limited capacity of just tax collector.

For now, Francis will keep his role as tax administrator, overseeing everything he does now, with the exception of tax collections.

Matthews’s job will be limited to the narrower role of tax collector — which was technically what he was elected to. It is up to the county commissioners whether to also name him to the bigger job of administrator, but that didn’t make sense at this point.

“You aren’t going to take someone with no experience and give them more responsibility than the actual job they ran for,” Sorrels said.

Matthews previously said he thought he was running for Francis job as it was today, and didn’t know about the distinction between tax collector and tax administrator.

Francis was making $78,000 as tax administrator. Prior to his promotion to that larger role in 2007, Francis was making $55,000.

So commissioners set Matthews’ salary at that lower rate of $55,000.

In some counties, the role of tax administrator and tax collector are carried out by the same person — as they were in Haywood. But in others, such as neighboring Jackson, it’s two different jobs carried out by two different people.

So it’s not unusual for Haywood to switch to that model — with Francis as tax administrator and Matthews as tax collector.

Wight said it is disingenuous for commissioners to change the job description and restructure the chain of command after the election, once they saw who won.

“They didn’t change the rules before the game,” Wight said.

Jonnie Cure, also a Republican activist in the audience, questioned the added layer of bureaucracy of a tax administrator at all to oversee the other department heads.

“Why do they need to have that big position? Those departments are functioning well,” Cure said.

Keeping Francis on in the role of tax administrator, even after Matthews comes on as tax collector, will cost the county money. It’s an extra salary the county wasn’t paying before, since Francis did both jobs.

But it will be well worth it to have someone helping Matthews learn the ropes, and hopefully prevent the county’s tax collection rate from dipping — which would cost the county far more than Francis’ interim salary. For now, he is slated to stay on for three months, but that could be reassessed if he’s needed to stay longer.

Before Matthews takes office on Dec. 1, the county has commissioned an auditing firm to do a complete audit of the tax collections department.

“If there was ever a problem, an audit will freeze frame everything,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “It will provide a clear demarcation point.”

Commissioners also upped the bond requirement for the county tax collector to $400,000. Francis had a bond requirement of only $100,000. 

“You want a bond that is commiserate with the qualifications and the risk,” Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said of why the county wants Matthews bonded at a higher level.

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