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Newly elected Haywood tax collector races to get bonded in time to take office

The clock is ticking for the newly elected tax collector in Haywood County to get bonded before his first day on the job next week.

After an upset by a narrow margin in the tax collector’s race this month, Mike Matthews is supposed to be sworn in on Monday, Dec. 1. But he can’t take office until he secures a personal liability bond — an insurance policy of sorts that covers mistakes or wrongdoing by an employee who handles money.

 

“It is absolutely mandatory that you be bonded before you take office as tax collector. The state general statute says that,” explained County Attorney Chip Killian.

As of press time Tuesday, the county had not heard from Matthews on whether he’d secured a bond yet. Matthews would not comment to The Smoky Mountain News when asked about the status of his bond application.

County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger said there is no contingency plan in the event Matthews doesn’t get bonded in time to take office Monday (Dec. 1).

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“I am operating under the assumption he will be bonded and get sworn in and assume duties on Dec. 1,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said.

But with no word as of late Tuesday, time seemed to be running out, especially with Thanksgiving taking a bite out of business days in the countdown to Monday’s scheduled swearing in.

“I hope the application gets in quick because it could be problematic if everybody’s closed for the holiday,” Finance Officer Julie Davis said late last week.

Matthews ran on the Republican ticket against longtime Tax Collector David Francis, and pulled out a surprise 250-vote victory. He’s now slated to take charge of $39 million in annual tax collections for the county despite little experience or qualifications.

 

The countdown to bonded

Typically, the county handles the bond application for employees who have to be bonded, including the sheriff, register of deeds and finance director.

There was a two-week turnaround time for Matthews to get bonded. It was theoretically ample time.

The clock started when county commissioners set Matthews’ bond amount at their meeting last Monday (Nov. 17). He was given a bond application the next day. Finance Director Julie Davis went over job-specific questions on the application that Matthews had no way of knowing on his own yet — like how much cash he would be handling and what bank the county uses.

The rest of the application involved personal information, from past employment to credit history. Typically, Matthews would fill it out and return it, and the county would get the application in the pipeline with its insurance broker.

From start to finish, Matthews should have been bonded in a few days.

But by Friday, the county had yet to get the application back from Matthews to begin the process.

It turned out Matthews decided to go his own route. He engaged a private insurance broker to shop his application around with bonding agencies, rather than have the county handle it.

It is unclear, however, whether it will be done in time. County Manager Ira Dove was reluctant to comment on the issue, citing employee confidentiality. Dove said the county could share a copy of the bond policy when it comes through, since it would be a public record, but as of Tuesday, the county hadn’t received anything.

 

Setting the bond amount

While it’s obligatory for the tax collector to be bonded, county commissioners can choose the amount they see fit. 

They chose $410,000 for Matthews. That’s four times the bond required of the outgoing tax collector David Francis, which was only $100,000.

A higher bond means the county is better protected against losses if the event of performance issues or malfeasance.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said Francis’ bond was probably too low — it had been set years ago by past commissioners and they never thought to revisit it.

The range on bond amounts for tax collectors varies widely in the region, from $50,000 to $1 million in different counties.

“It is all over the map,” Swanger said.

County finance officers are also bonded. In Haywood County, Finance Officer Julie Davis is bonded at $410,000. It made sense to require the same bond amount for Matthews, Swanger said.

Commissioners further said the bond amount reflects the import of the job Matthews is expected to fill — namely, bringing in the dough the county needs to operate. If the tax collection rate dips, that means less money coming in to county coffers, which would compromise funding for everything from schools to law enforcement to libraries to human services.

But the higher bond imposed on Matthews could be a reflection of commissioners’ concerns about his qualifications.

Matthews, who lives in Maggie, has worked in half a dozen jobs over the past decade, including a VIP host at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, a mortgage officer and account manager at Wachovia, the general manager at Ghost Town amusement park and a radio ad salesman.

Matthews has never owned property of his own, according to county real estate records. But he has failed to pay his vehicle property taxes on time more than once, accruing late fees. The county garnished Matthews’ wages at one point to collect past-due personal property taxes on a mobile home he owned in his college days.

Matthews’ credit check as part of his bond application will likely turn up a pending civil lawsuit against him by a credit card company for over $3,000 owed on furniture purchased from Rooms To Go — $1,000 of which is late fees and interest. While the credit card lists his grandmother’s name as a co-signor, the civil suit names only Matthews.

 

The transition

County commissioners have asked the outgoing tax collector David Francis to stay around on a temporary basis, in part to train Matthews how to do the job that goes with the title he won. 

Despite Matthews’ inexperience, he won’t be the newest kid on the block for long. Two employees in the tax collector’s office are leaving — one retired and one quit.

So two new hires will come on board shortly after Matthews. Including Matthews, three of the six employees in the tax collector’s office will be new heading into the busiest and most critical time of year for tax collections.

During the transition, Francis will continue to serve as the tax administrator — a supervisory management role that is technically higher on the totem pole than tax collector.

Francis had been serving as both simultaneously: filling the dual roles of tax administrator and tax collector.

But in many counties, two different people do those jobs. 

The tax administrator oversees a smorgasbord of smaller tax-related departments, including mapping and land records. Meanwhile, the tax collector is just over the collections arm.

For now, Francis will keep the rest of the tax administrator job and hand over only the tax collector portion to Matthews.

Technically, Matthews was elected only for the job of tax collector and isn’t automatically entitled to — or qualified for — the larger role of tax administrator that the county had assigned to Francis, according to county commissioners.

Francis was making $78,000 a year, but Matthews’ salary will be $55,000, in keeping with his more limited scope of duties compared to what Francis was doing.

For now, commissioners have asked Francis to stay on for three months. The long-term plan after that is not clear, and likely not formulated yet. 

Francis could be asked to stay on longer. Or the county could hire someone else as tax administrator. Or the county could do away with the middle-management position of tax administrator all together.

 

 

Here’s how other counties do it:

• Buncombe County — The tax administrator is over multiple departments and makes $145,000. The tax collector is a separate position with a salary of  $78,000.

• Jackson County — The tax administrator oversees multiple departments and makes $93,000. The tax collector is a separate position and makes $53,000.

• Macon County — The tax administrator oversees multiple departments and makes $81,000. The tax collector is a separate position and makes $54,000.

• Swain County — The role of tax administrator and tax collector is carried out by the same person. The salary is $43,000.

• Henderson County — The role of tax administrator and tax collector is carried out by the same person. The salary is $106,000.

 

Tax collector’s bond: a county snapshot 

County tax collectors must be bonded per state statute. The liability policy compensates the county for losses — up to the amount of the bond — in the event of wrongdoing or mistakes. It’s up to county commissioners to set the bond amount.

County            Amount of bond

Macon             $250,000

Swain              $50,000

Jackson           $250,000

Haywood         $410,000

Henderson      $1 million

Buncombe       $100,000

Get to know the new tax collector

A meet-and-greet with newly elected Tax Collector Mike Matthews is being hosted by members of the Haywood County Republican Party at 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 1, at the Cross Country School of Real Estate in the Waynesville Plaza.

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