Haywood’s tax collector roller coaster is over
The newly elected Haywood County Tax Collector took office Monday, one week later than scheduled after encountering a delay in securing a professional liability bond.
Mike Matthews, a Republican, was a longshot candidate, yet pulled out a narrow win in the fall election for tax collector. Haywood is the only county in the state with an elected tax collector, which was once the norm.
Matthews was sworn in Dec. 8 and promptly began training under the tutelage of long-time tax collector David Francis.
The two men were camped out behind a pile of paperwork in a county office Monday afternoon, with Francis walking Matthews through the county’s tax collection system and going over key files. They appeared to be putting any election bitterness behind them. Matthews needs Francis to teach him what the job entails and how to do it, especially since three of the five employees in the tax office have quit, retired or transferred in the past few weeks.
Meanwhile, Francis doesn’t want to leave the county hanging, so agreed to stay on in an interim capacity for three months and help the guy who beat him learn the ropes.
Matthews’ original swearing in planned for last week was postponed at the last minute after Matthews couldn’t get bonded in time. Matthews’ bond application was denied by at least one national insurance firm over issues discovered during employment and credit background checks. Although the county’s bonding agency declined to underwrite Matthew’s bond, Matthews continued looking through independent channels – namely with the help of Steve Davis at General Insurance in Waynesville.
The normally routine process became a political circus, however, as Matthews’ supporters and critics argued over whether county commissioners were demanding too high a bond for Matthews and thus making it hard for him to take office.
Hopefully, that is now water under the bridge, Davis said.
“The fact he has gotten a bond probably diffused the situation,” Davis said. “He is in now, he’s got a bond, he is set for four years. I just think people need to let it go.”
The tax collector must be bonded, but commissioners decide what dollar amount. Commissioners set Matthews’ bond at $410,000, while Francis only had a bond of $100,000.
From a strictly technical standpoint, the higher the bond, the harder it is to get, Davis said. And it can’t always be done overnight. Financial and credit history, net worth and personal assets, employment background – all of those are considered by an underwriter. The higher the bond, the more picky they are, he said.
“It is not a cut-and-dry proposition,” Davis said.
Davis stayed neutral in the political drama playing out around the bond issue. He didn’t pass judgment on the commissioners’ motives for requiring a higher bond, but noted that doing so did make it harder.
“It is a bigger deal than a lot of people thought it would be, but it is not an insurmountable hurdle,” Davis said. “I am not saying it is without reason. The county commissioners had to exercise some thought process there. I am sure in their mind they thought ‘We wanted to protect all the taxpayers.’”
Critics accused the predominantly Democratic board of commissioners of political retribution against Matthews, a Republican, by upping the bond amount. But commissioners said the higher bond was justified — citing Matthews’ limited experience and red flags in his personal financial record.
“A lot of people are trying to make it a political thing. There was nothing political in it,” Davis said.
After all, partisanship didn’t stop Matthews from hiring Davis or Davis from taking him as a client.
“He is a Republican and I am a Democrat, and I told him that, but I said I would do what I would do for anyone who came to me, and that’s help him get bonded,” Davis said.
The real test
An audit over the weekend was timed with the changing of the guard from Francis to Matthews.
At the point Matthews took over Monday morning, only 48 percent of the property tax bills had been paid for 2014, according to the audit.
That’s low but normal for this time of year. Collections will climb sizably over the next six weeks – most people pay their property taxes in December and January – and should hit an 89 or 90 percent collection rate by the end of January, Francis said.
Any property taxes not paid by then are considered delinquent, and the tax collector’s real work begins. It will be on Matthews’ shoulders to get the stubborn, dead-beat, cash-strapped or just forgetful tax payers to pay up by June.
The county expects a tax collection rate of about 97 percent – totaling about $39 million – or it will face budget shortfalls.
Matthews decline to comment for this article but has said publically that he is ready to roll up his sleeves and do the job he was elected to do.
“To his credit, I think he is intelligent and I don’t think he will have any problems once he gets familiar with the job,” said Davis. The insurance agent said all that really matters is whether Matthews can hit the mark on tax collections. The politically charged climate surrounding his swearing in has obfuscated the real issue, he said.
“I’ve said we should let this man make or break himself on his own. Let’s not throw a political wrench in it,” Davis said. “My only job was to get him a bond and I accomplished that, and now we can see how it all plays out.”
Apples, oranges and bonds
Several county employees – from the register of deeds to finance officer – must be bonded. The county pays the cost of their policy.
For the new tax collector Mike Matthews, his $410,000 bond policy will cost $2,200 a year.
That’s more than the premium for Finance Officer Julie Davis. Davis also has a $410,000 bond, but the annual cost is only $1,400.
But that isn’t necessarily a reflection of Matthews being more risky in the underwriter’s eyes.
“You can’t really draw a comparison,” said Steve Davis of General Insurance in Waynesville.
Several variables play a factor, including the amount of cash handled.
• In Jackson County, the tax collector and finance officer are both bonded for $250,000. But the cost tax collector’s policy is $1,500 a year versus $875 for the finance director.
• The tax collectors in Buncombe and Haywood both had $100,000 bonds until recently, but the cost of the policies differed. The premium is $750 a year for the Buncombe tax collector compared to $350 for Haywood’s.
• The Macon County tax collector has a $250,000 bond that costs $875, while Swain’s tax collector has a $50,000 bond that costs $100. But the cost of the policy is disproportionately higher for Macon.
Macon’ bond amount is five time higher than Swain’s, but the cost of the policy is eight times higher.
What a ride: tax collector mayhem one for the Haywood history books
The unfolding drama over the tax collector’s position has been marked by unexpected twists and turns.
The first surprise was the election itself, with long-time Tax Collector David Francis losing by 250 votes to Mike Matthews, who is young and inexperienced by comparison.
Next was the issue of whether Francis would stay on to train Matthews. Critics said it was a slap in the face to voters who thought they were ousting Francis to keep him around at all, but since Matthews wouldn’t know what he was doing his first day on the job, someone had to show him, and why not Francis?
Then came the issue of Matthews’ salary. Commissioners set it at $55,000, about $20,000 lower than what Francis was making. Critics again said it wasn’t fair to pay Matthews less, but commissioners said it was reasonable since he wasn’t as experienced as his predecessor.
Besides, that’s what Francis was making prior to a promotion seven years ago that made him a manager over several adjunct departments – a dual role he served in addition to tax collector. Matthews won’t be acting in that dual capacity, and thus doesn’t get the salary that went with the larger role.
But biggest hue and cry came when commissioners upped the amount of the liability bond, making it more difficult for Matthews to secure the necessary bond in time to take office on his scheduled swearing in day.