Tough fight expected in Haywood tax collector’s race
Incumbent Republican Tax Collector Mike Matthews is seeking re-election to an office many people don’t even think should be elected at all. In fact, Haywood County is home to the state’s only remaining elected tax collector.
Matthews’ tenure has been tempestuous since before it even began; bonding troubles delayed his swearing-in, and his defeated Democratic opponent was rehired by the county at a higher pay rate, setting up a work environment that could be called tense. Haywood commissioners have since clashed with Matthews on a number of occasions, over a number of issues — namely, his knowledge and his work ethic.
In 2016, an internal complaint concerning Matthews was investigated by a county-hired attorney and although found ultimately to be unsubstantiated, the investigator’s report was subsequently anonymously leaked to The Waynesville Mountaineer, which published excerpts alleging a generally unprofessional workplace. No investigation into who leaked the confidential report — which the county has refused to release — was ever conducted.
Not long after, commissioners unanimously approved a resolution asking Haywood’s state legislators — all Republicans — to make the position an appointed one. No action has yet been taken on that. Franklin Sen. Jim Davis has expressed support for a ballot referendum on the issue, as has Bryson City Rep. Mike Clampitt. Burnsville Rep. Michele Presnell hasn’t been clear in her position but also hasn’t expressed any support for the idea.
Recent revelations of improperly waived property tax penalties by Matthews and his clerks — for which he said he’d make personal amends — again reignited the debate, just months after he survived a primary challenge and weeks before his contest against Democrat Greg West.
With such a tumultuous term, it’s a wonder he’s even running again. Undaunted, Matthews stands on his collection rate, as well as what he says is a genuine desire to look out for taxpayers.
“I feel like we’ve done a lot of good in the office. I think we’ve helped a lot of people, and I think we really haven’t quite reached our potential yet with what we can do, with all the back-and-forth,” Matthews said. “I think we’ve done a lot of good, and that’s why I’m continuing.”
There’s been a lot of criticism of both the tax collector, and the tax collector’s office. How much of that is valid?
Matthews: I don’t think any of it is.
West: I work in that building, and see a lot of things that go on. I think there is some validity to some of the criticism, but again Mr. Matthews was elected, he chooses to run his office the way he chooses, that’s up to him. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that he does, but that’s his choice.
Like much of government, this job is really about relationships. With three of five seats on the Haywood County Board of Commissioners up for election and only two incumbents running, what kind of relationships do you have, or hope to have, with that board in the future?
West: We have a good working relationship, I feel. I do give reports at the [commission] meetings every month, and sometimes we have to talk with them concerning values and stuff like that, so I have a good working relationship I feel at this time. It’s important to have a good working relationship, and if there’s something causing that to not be the case, it would be my responsibility to work on it to where you can work those problems out, because ultimately, we’re a team.
Matthews: If we have a new board come in, I hope they realize my duty is not to them. It’s to the taxpayers. That’s it. Period. My job is not to make then happy or to appease them. It’s to do what’s right for the taxpayers. I find it quite odd that the night I got in, [then-County Manager] Ira Dove looked at me on behalf of the commissioners and said, “As long as you meet this [collection rate] or exceed it, we’re good.” I think it was 96.95 percent at the time. I’ve exceeded that every year. I find it odd that these commissioners are basically saying, “You’re not treating my constituents as badly as I want you to.” That makes no sense to me. Our numbers are better than they’ve ever been, the county’s bringing in more money than it’s ever brought in, and yet the people that they’re reaching out to, asking for their votes, they’re saying I’m treating them too nice, too fairly.
Haywood still doesn’t rank all that high in collections rate — out of 100 N.C. counties, 63 are better. What can be done to improve the performance of the office?
Matthews: As far as the rest of the state goes, we don’t get a bonus compared to what they do. I don’t care what the rest of the state does. My job is not to look after the rest of the state. My job is the county. So as far as with the rest of the state, that really has no bearing on how we treat our office. Honestly I’m not trying to reach a 99 percent collection rate. I’m trying to maintain the collection rate that we’ve got, give the county more money than they’ve had, every year, and treat people fairly in doing so. As long as we’re meeting the rate that was set forth, my priority is how we treat people, not about what we bring in, as long us we bring in enough for the county to operate.
West: We need to have a trained staff. There’s been quite a bit of turnover in that office since Mr. Matthews took office. I believe there’s been 10 people come and go since then, so they need to have support there, in the staff and leadership, to build a team and work together to improve that collection percentage.
Should this office continue to be elected?
West: I look at that and I see both sides. I like the right to vote. I think it’s one of the most important rights that we have. But I also see the fact that there needs to be a reason 99 other counties have that office appointed. It’s really to have some checks and balances there, so that the citizens of the county are protected, in case someone comes in, gets elected and doesn’t do the job. Ultimately it should probably be left up to the people to vote on it.
Matthews: Absolutely. They [commissioners] have shown you why in the past couple of years by the way they act. If you had people that you could actually trust to go in there and be fair-minded, sure, but the people we have on the board, you can’t trust them to do what’s right.
This remains an elected office, and a partisan one at that. How does party affect this job?
Matthews: I don’t think this should be a partisan position, but it is. Politics for me hasn’t swayed the job one way or the other.
West: I think this office is really a nonpartisan office. I mean, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, unaffiliated. We all come in to pay our taxes, and so it makes no difference to me whether you are Republican or Democrat. We’re going to treat you fairly. The same. I think politics should not play a part at all in this job.
Compared to your opponent, why are you the right person for this job?
West: I feel like my almost 10 years experience in that tax office — working in real property, appraising the values, learning all aspects of the tax department — gives me more experience than my opponent has now. When people come in with questions concerning their accounts, bills, I’m able to explain it because I’ve been the one who sets the values, knows how it works, knows the programs we use for senior citizens, veterans, where I think Mr. Matthews doesn’t quite have that same experience that I do.
Matthews: In spite of all the opposition that we’ve had, we are still maintaining a collection rate higher than ever. Our delinquent balance is lower than it has ever been. At the same time, we’re helping people, and I think the reason that I would be better than my opponent is because I have no ties to the commissioners or to the county administration. The voters picked me to make the decisions for that office. They didn’t pick me to make the decisions for that office as long as the commissioners or the administration agrees with the decisions that I make. With me, voters have someone that’s willing to step up and listen to them — not to the outside noise coming from commissioners.
Meet the candidates
Mike Matthews, 38, was born in Chattanooga, but lived in Fayetteville until moving to Haywood County at the age of 16. A graduate of St. John’s in Florida, Matthews majored in business management.
“My background has always been in finance. After Florida, I moved to Atlanta and took a job as a collections manager for a mobile home company,” he said.
Matthews spent four years there until the company restructured, and then got into the mortgage business. After serving a stint as a Maggie Valley alderman, Matthews defeated incumbent Tax Collector David Francis in a narrow upset in 2014.
Greg West, 50, was born and raised in Haywood County, went to Tuscola High School, and has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Western Carolina University.
“I’ve always worked with the public,” said West. “I worked in the rent-to-own industry, and was very successful with that.”
About a decade ago he got into the appraisal business, and since then been with Haywood County, where he currently serves as the assistant tax assessor. This is West’s first run for office.
“The tax collector’s position is very important. As citizens of this county, we expect certain services — the sheriff’s department, emergency management, a lot of the money we collect goes to the school system. The citizens deserve these services, and the tax collector collects the money for those,” he said.