Transition to new tax collector is a high stakes affair

Nov. 16—Haywood County leaders are pledging to do "whatever it takes" to ensure the county's property tax collection rate doesn't take a dip when its newly-elected tax collector takes office starting Dec. 5.

Republican Sebastian Cothran, a 21-year-old college student who has never had a regular job before, beat current Tax Collector Greg West, who achieved the highest tax collection rate in the county's history during his four years in office.

Cothran will be responsible for collecting around $40 million in property taxes that fuel county operations.

"We have a responsibility to make the office as effective as we can," County Manager Bryant Morehead said. "Any decrease in the collection rate impacts the county budget. Even if it's just half a percent, that would mean a decrease in services to Haywood County."

That, or the nuclear option of increasing property taxes to offset any dip in collections under Cothran's watch — a call commissioners would ultimately have to make.

County leadership met with Cothran on Tuesday to begin laying out a transition plan. The plan largely relies on the four seasoned staff in the tax collectors office teaching Cothran, who will be their boss, how to do his job.

"He's set up for success. He's taking over a very well-staffed and professional department," Morehead said, crediting West for that.

So far, none of the staff have said they are quitting, Morehead said. However, Morehead didn't answer directly when asked whether he was concerned about morale among the seasoned employees.

"Change always brings some anxiety," Morehead said. "You hope the transition works."

Taking on such a big role will be just as hard for Cothran as it is for the staff.

"He will have to find his footing. It's always tough coming into a new organization," Morehead said.

Cothran's work experience is limited to mowing lawns and selling used books and DVDs on eBay, and he has not yet completed his accounting degree at UNC-Asheville.

High stakes

Cothran will walk onto the job at the busiest time of year for tax collections. Property taxes are due in early January, so December sees a steady stream of people coming in and calling about their bills.

West worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the other four staff, routinely jumping in to ease the line during the busy season.

"I would walk around and ask if people had checks of 10 or more — things that would be tedious at the counter and hold up the show," West said.

West said he was obviously disappointed in the election outcome. While Republicans swept every contested race on the ballot in Haywood County, West thought voters would recognize his experience was a clear advantage. He served in the county tax department prior to becoming tax collector four years ago.

"I gave everything I had to it," said West. "We have a good team there, and we've done an excellent job. It's a shame you can lose your job even if you've done pretty good at it."

West praised the four staff in the tax collector's office and said they will be the county's saving grace if they stay.

"It's a well-oiled machine. They know what to do, when to do it, how to do it. They ran the show," West said.

West said the camaraderie with his staff is one of the things he'll miss most.

"We all really got along well and believed in the same philosophy. We wanted to treat people right when they came to the counter, work with folks who might be having difficulties, and be good stewards for the county," West said.

When West assumed the role four years ago, he ushered in a new era of stability following the tumultuous and controversial term of previous tax collector Mike Matthews.

Matthews tenure was marked by drama, from errors to keeping irregular work hours to clashes with county officials. The staff was in constant churn during Matthews' era, but has seen little to no turnover under West.

"I ran for that job for the good of the county," West said. "I wish them all the best. I want the county to do well."

Getting bonded

State statute requires that tax collectors obtain a professional liability bond before assuming office.

"The tax collector-elect must be bonded according to state statute. That's not an option," Assistant County Manager Kris Boyd said.

Eight years ago, then newly-elected tax collector Mike Matthews hit a snag trying to get bonded due to a history of court claims for unpaid bills, back taxes and liens. His swearing in was delayed a week while the county scrambled to find a bonding agency willing to take the risk.

With Cothran, it's unclear how his lack of past employment and a credit record could impact his ability to get bonded. He said the only time he's filled out a W-2 was to serve as county precinct worker at the polls. If he didn't report his side income mowing lawns and selling on eBay for tax purposes, his lack of an employment record could be an issue in getting a professional liability bond.

But that's not up to the county.

"The insurance companies will have to evaluate this young man's ability to get a bond," Boyd said.

Why an elected tax collector?

Haywood County is the only county that still elects its tax collector. County Attorney Frank Queen said it is an unusual arrangement.

"The tax collector is employed by the county but they are elected directly by the public," Queen said. "That makes them different from normal county employees. They can only be removed from office for very specific purposes."

In all 99 other counties, the tax collector is hired rather than elected to remove politics from the equation, a change that has gradually been adopted across the state.

Haywood County leaders have also expressed interest in doing away with an elected tax collector, but it would require a bill in the legislature — and thus support from Haywood's representatives in the General Assembly.

Ensley said he broached the idea two years ago in a sit-down meeting between local government leaders and Haywood's legislative delegation. However, it got a lukewarm reception, Ensley said.

"We asked if they would consider doing that, and they didn't act on it," Ensley said of the meeting, which included N.C. Rep. Mark Pless, R-Bethel. Pless' predecessor, Republican legislator Michele Presnell had refused to sponsor a bill to switch to an appointed tax collector.