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Haywood commissioners vexed by attendance record of tax collector

fr mikematthewsHaywood County commissioners expressed concern this week over what they claim is poor work attendance of the county tax collector, Mike Matthews.

Commissioners said they have heard complaints from the public that Matthews rarely seems to be in his office, a trend they say is verified by other county employees who work on the same hall.

“I have heard from the public they don’t see him up there very often,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said at a county meeting Monday. “I have gotten a lot of complaints about that, but there is not a lot we can do about that.”

“That’s right we don’t have any legal authority over an elected official,” Commissioner Mark Swanger replied. 

Matthews became the elected tax collector following a narrow upset victory last year, ousting long-time tax collector David Francis by just 200 votes. Haywood County is the last county in the state that has an elected tax collector.

Matthews said commissioners are still just bitter that he beat Francis and were “grandstanding” at the meeting.

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“They took an opportunity when I wasn’t there to run their mouths like they always do,” Matthews said.

Matthews was not at the commissioner meeting Monday where his attendance record became a subject of conversation.

Swanger noted that December is the busiest time of the year for property tax payments and expressed concern about Matthews not being present.

“So everybody in there is working hard, huh?” Swanger said.

“I would say his staff is working hard,” County Manager Ira Dove replied, with emphasis on the “staff ” part of the equation. “The tax collector’s staff is working hard.”

“How hard or often is the tax collector working?” Swanger asked.

“Um … I would say, of the time office has been open, he has definitely been there less than 50 percent of the time, possibly less than a third ” Dove replied.

But Matthews said that’s not true.

“He is full of shit, and all of them are too,” Matthews said in an interview later. “As far as that goes, I am here every single day. I mean, there are days I am going to Asheville for a meeting with an attorney or am out looking at property, but I am always available. I am in the office 90 percent of the time.”

Swanger asked Dove how he could tell whether Matthews was, or wasn’t, coming in, since they work on different floors.

“What do you base that on?” Swanger asked.

“What people have told me, and also looking at some of the card access, and a few of the days on the tape,” Dove said. County employees use swipe cards to enter the building, which keeps a record of when employees come to work. Matthews pointed out that he could be coming in the front door, which has no card reader,.

However, Dove’s reference to “the tape” referred to security cameras, including one with a view of the hall outside Matthews’ office.

“He is still getting paid a full-time salary?” Swanger said.

Dove explained that Matthews gets the same salary no matter what. Since he is elected, the county can’t fire him, hold him accountable, or penalize him by cutting his pay.

“So regardless of how many hours he does or does not work he gets the same amount of money,” Swanger said. 

Matthews said commissioners don’t like the fact he won and it’s been a losing battle from the start to change their perception of him.

“They will just have to suck it up for the next three years,” Matthews said, citing the remaining years on his elected term.

Matthews said the proof of the job he’s doing is in the numbers. The tax collection rate is up compared to this time last year.

“So what’s the problem?” Matthews said. “Our numbers are as good or better than they have been. Our collections are up and we have done less foreclosures than we have ever done before.” However, it is too soon to say whether the year will actually finish up or down, and won’t be known until accounts are reconciled at year end, according to Dove.

Dove said there are a variety of factors that could lead to the collection rate being up — which is a trend for counties statewide. The economy is better, there are fewer foreclosures and the burden of collecting motor vehicle taxes no longer falls to county tax offices but is done through tag renewal.

Dove also commended the job the staff in Matthew’s department is doing.

“The staff of that office under him have worked very hard and continue to do so. He has some very hard-working employees,” Dove said.

Of the five employees in the tax collector’s office, only one has been there longer than a year. Four employees quit or transferred after Matthews took over the office. There has been a 50 percent turnover among the four new hires since then.

Francis, the former tax collector, was kept on in an interim capacity to train Matthews how to do the job, and was later made part of the county’s upper-level administrative team. He is often called on for support and institutional knowledge to help the tax collector’s office.

Matthews said the reason tax collections are up, however, is because of the new culture he’s brought to the tax collector’s office.

“We are willing to work with people when they come in,” Matthews said. “We don’t make people mad. We have very little complaints.”

Commissioners stumbled into a conversation about Matthew’s work attendance after he didn’t show up to make his regular monthly report on tax collections at the county meeting Monday evening.

When the agenda item rolled around, Swanger looked up and surveyed the handful of people in the audience before turning to Dove.

“Our tax collector Mike Matthews is listed as the presenter … um … he doesn’t appear to be present,” Swanger said. “Ira, do you know where he is?”

Dove couldn’t offer a first-hand explanation, but passed on what he’d been told by Matthew’s staff. 

“The information I received from the deputy tax collector is that Mr. Matthews had a family engagement and did not show for this,” Dove replied.

After pondering the monthly tax report from November that had been submitted by Matthew’s deputy tax collector, Swanger noted that it was markedly shy of collections the previous November, about $4 million less than the same month last year.

“Do you know how that occurred or why it occurred?” Swanger asked.

“Mr. Matthews has not given an explanation,” Dove replied.

Dove said it was his understanding from Matthew’s staff, however, that invoices for property tax bills hadn’t been sent to mortgage companies on time asking them to remit payments being held in homeowners’ escrow accounts.

“Do you know why they weren’t sent out?” Swanger asked.

“I have no reason as to why he didn’t get it sent out, other than, I really don’t know why he missed all that. I understand there were meetings on how to do this and the processes that he did not appear at,” Dove said, citing that new software had required a new process.

“Did he attend those meetings?” Swanger asked.

“To my knowledge, no, and I don’t know why,” Dove said.

Dove said the escrow billing to mortgage companies has since been sent, however, and the payments have now been caught up, but posted in December rather than November when they should have.

“Didn’t tax bills go out a little later than normal this year?” Commissioner Mike Sorrells asked.

Dove said yes.

“Why did they go out late?” Swanger asked.

“I don’t have a full explanation for that,” Dove said, noting that other staff in the tax office worked late hours to get it done.

“It just … I mean … it looks like somebody may not be doing their job,” Sorrells said.

Swanger asked Dove to schedule a meeting with Matthews after the holidays to “come to a better understanding of what our expectations are.”

Matthews said he is not beholden to the commissioners or to Dove, however.

“I could care less about trying to make them happy. That is not a bit of my concern to try to make them happy,” Matthews said.

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