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The magic number: is the tax collector’s higher bond prudent or punitive?

Haywood County commissioners are being accused of partisan politics for upping the liability bond for the county tax collector, although commissioners say it’s just a safeguard given the limited experience and less-than-stellar financial record of the incoming tax collector.

Critics say the Democratic commissioners are just trying to shut down the newly elected Republican tax collector Mike Matthews by setting his bond too high.

“The county commissioners made it about impossible for him to take office,” said Vickie Queen, a Matthews’ supporter.

Matthews must secure a professional liability bond of $410,000 — an amount decided by commissioners —before he can take office. It is substantially higher than the $100,000 bond of his predecessor David Francis, who’s been in the job since 1998. Francis is a Democrat.

“Why was the bond for the Democrat $100,000? There are people who are questioning whether it is partisan,” said Debbie King, a local Republican Party activist,  although King would not say whether she is one of those people doing the questioning.

Commissioners countered that accusation.

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“We didn’t arbitrarily set a bond that was too difficult for Mr. Matthews to obtain,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick. “We never thought it would be hard. It wasn’t aimed at keeping him out of office. We will do whatever we can to help him get that bond.”

Commissioners said the higher bond was justified given Matthews’ personal financial background and lack of experience.

“The evidence showed his financial record wasn’t that good and the other commissioners felt like it needed to be higher to protect the taxpayers,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said. Ensley, the lone Republican on the board, said politics had nothing to do with the higher bond amount. 

Ensley wagered that any of the commissioners would be able to get a bond of $410,000 themselves.

Republicans put out a call to their ranks to show up at Matthews’ swearing in ceremony Monday — even though Matthews wouldn’t actually be sworn in — as a show of solidarity.

“The commissioners should be aware there is a prevailing sentiment they have unfairly set the bond amount, and they need to explain their action,” said Pat Carr, the chair of the Haywood County Republican Party, in an email to fellow party officers.

Only a handful of Matthews’ supporters showed up, however. A couple of them waylaid Commissioner Mark Swanger after the meeting and took him to task. King pointed a video camera at Swanger and filmed him while posing questions.

“You set the bond $310,000 higher for the Republican tax collector,” King said to Swanger.

“It is not because he is a Republican,” Swanger replied.

“I am not saying it is or isn’t,” King said.

King said some people are asking that question, however.

Swanger said the bond isn’t a static amount for tax collectors across the board.

“The statute does not specify a bond amount for the position,” Swanger said. 

Rather, it varies according to the individual. What’s prudent for one person may not be prudent for another, Swanger said.

In the event of human error or malfeasance, the bond is like an insurance policy. The county can recoup any losses it incurs as a result of missteps by the tax collector — but only up to the bond amount. Thus, the bond amount should reflect the perceived risk to the county.

“It is based on individual qualities like trustworthiness, et cetera, et cetera,” Swanger said.

Specifically, the state statute says the tax collector must secure a bond “conditioned upon his honesty and faithful performance in such amount as the governing body may prescribe.”

Commissioners added that $100,000 was probably too low, even for Francis. The bond for Francis was set years ago by a previous board, and simply never revisited until now.

“I thought it was time to up the amount. I didn’t see that as a way of keeping Mr. Matthews out of the job,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.

Francis is getting his own bond upped from $100,000 to $410,000 now that he is staying on as interim tax collector. 

Haywood is the only county in the state where the tax collector is still an elected office. It used to be the norm, but every other county has abandoned electing a tax collector and made it a hired administrative position.

While Matthews has won the tax collector seat in a Republican-friendly election year, it’s unknown whether he would have a shot at the job if he had to go through a regular hiring and vetting process.

Matthews has some relevant experience as an account manager and mortgage officer at Wachovia in Waynesville. But he parted ways with Wachovia several years ago and has not worked in the financial industry since. He’s worked as an insurance salesman, radio ad salesman and VIP host at Harrah’s Casino over the past five years since leaving Wachovia.

Jonnie Cure, a Matthews’ supporter, said she believes he is amply qualified.

“I think he is very bright. I think he would do a good job,” Cure said.

 

On the horizon

Matthews, who eked out a narrow victory for tax collector in last month’s election, said he is hopeful he can get the required bond. He met with supporters during a meet-and-greet reception Monday evening. Most in the room were critical of commissioners for setting such a high bond. Matthews told them he feels like the rules of the game were changed mid-stream, but won’t hold a grudge.

“Once I get in, I am not going to go in with a chip on my shoulder,” Matthews told supporters Monday night. “I just want to get in and do what I was elected to do.”

Matthews has been open about not having great credit, according to Jeremy Davis, a supporter in attendance at the meet-and-greet. In an interview three weeks ago, Matthews said he knows what it is like to have bills piling up that you can’t pay on time.

Matthews has been delinquent on his county vehicle taxes twice in recent years, racking up late fees. His wife failed to pay her vehicle taxes twice in recent years as well. He said in a past interview that he never got the overdue tax notices in the mail.

Matthews had his wages garnished in 2011 to collect past due vehicle taxes and past due property taxes on a mobile home, but Matthews said he didn’t know anything about that. And Matthews’ wife had her bank account tapped by the county to forcibly collect her back due vehicle taxes, which Matthews also said he was not aware of. 

A collection agency has a $3,000 civil suit pending against Matthews for a past due credit card bill, but Matthews said that was news to him when asked about it in a past interview. Matthews also has a court-ordered judgment against him for $474 dating to 2010 small claims suit. He hasn’t paid it yet, however, and the judgment now totals $569 with interest.

These are some of the financial considerations that gave commissioners pause when deciding to up the bond for Matthews’ to $410,000.

They also say the higher amount is more in keeping for counties of Haywood’s size around the state. The specific amount was chosen to match the bond required of the county finance director, which is also $410,000.

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