The real problem in Haywood’s tax office
Haywood County GOP leaders last week took the podium at a public meeting and proceeded to act as shills for Tax Collector Mike Matthews, trying to make the argument that Matthews suffers more from county commissioners and the media criticizing him than from his own ineptitude.
It was a curious — albeit flawed and completely wrong — argument, one that mistook facts for opinions and also included an unsavory dose of the increasingly popular attack on the media as an entity not caring about whether their reporting is accurate.
We know this line of attack is becoming an integral tool in the bag of tricks for politicos in Washington, D.C., but it is sad to see it slither down to the local level. Haywood GOP Chair Ken Henson and Secretary Lynda Bennett are admirable community leaders who have done much good work to rebuild a fractured Haywood Republican Party. This time, though, it seems their political inclinations — Matthews is a Republican — seemed to hijack common sense because Matthews’ problems are not imagined or made up. They are very real.
Henson was mostly right when he said commissioners have been critical of Matthews since he was elected. That’s all for good reason. After winning a tight race in 2014, Matthews’ background left him unable to get bonded for the necessary amount. Since then, he has had difficulty understanding some of the nuances of the computer program his office uses, has authorized waiving penalties on past due taxes (which is illegal under state law and never happens in surrounding counties with appointed tax collectors), has been criticized for regularly putting in less than 40 hours a week, hasn’t attended recommended training opportunities, and has been unable to answer questions from commissioners about some of the inner workings of his office.
Add all that up, and it makes for problems that commissioners have to deal with. If the position was appointed, it’s likely there would have been severe reprimands or more likely a dismissal. But they can’t fire Matthews. So when he shows up at meetings unprepared when asked tough questions, it makes the news. And when Haywood’s collection percentage is 64th out of 100 counties, commissioners see the opportunity to do better and keep taxes down so that more of the money made by taxpayers and voters can stay in their own pocket.
And that makes Bennett’s criticism of the elected county commissioners last week particularly disturbing.
“You’re going to the newspapers, you’re making statements that can’t be proven one way or another. You do not have to swear on the Bible that you’re telling the truth. The newspaper certainly has no obligation to tell the truth,” she said in the public meeting.
Commissioners shot back. Republican Brandon Rogers, someone who has shown great integrity while on the board, was blunt: “I don’t ‘care if they have got a ‘D’ an ‘L’ or an ‘R’ or whatever they go after their name. If we don’t have somebody that’s doing their job, then that puts all of us in a bad position.”
GOP Commissioner Kevin Ensley is as ethical and straight shooting as any elected leader I’ve covered in my entire 30-year career in journalism. He is as honorable as they come.
“If there’s a Bible here, I’ll swear on it. I always tell the truth. If you think I’ve told a lie, let me know what it is. The tax collector needs to be appointed,” Ensley said.
At an earlier meeting, Ensley had this to say about Matthews: “Republicans I know are hard-working and work long hours. The Republican Haywood County Tax Collector, not so much. That’s what upsets me.”
As for Bennett’s criticism of newspapers, we do have an obligation to tell the truth. Yes, we make our share of mistakes and have run plenty of corrections, but our very existence is based on the trust readers place in what we write. The First Amendment won’t protect us if we lie, and there are long lists of libel verdicts that prove as much.
The five county commissioners — three Democrat, two Republican, all level-headed, conscientious leaders — elected by Haywood County are all having problems with the job the tax collector is doing. That unanimity speaks volumes and should send a clear signal to voters that Matthews’ woes are of his own doing and have nothing to do with politics.