Hillsborough Tax Collector Race: Experiment vs. Little Known Entity

TAMPA — The last time voters elected a new tax collector for Hillsborough County, Bill Clinton was president and Lawton Chiles occupied the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee.

It was 1998, the year Doug Belden became the Hillsborough County tax collector. Belden is now retiring after 22 years, and voters will choose either Democrat Nancy C. Millan or Republican TK Mathew as his successor in the Nov. 3 general election.

Millan, director of community relations for the tax collector’s office, crushed former Hillsborough school board member April Griffin in the August 18 primary, winning more than 60% of the vote in the sharp-elbowed Democratic race.

Related: Nancy Millan wins Hillsborough tax collector primary

This contest gave Millan an opportunity to campaign early, build his brand and build name recognition among the electorate, something Mathew did not. Just before entering the race earlier this year, Mathew changed his name from Kuruvilla Mathew Thykuttathil, a change prompted by pronunciation difficulties, he said.

But the name change also illustrates a common issue in the campaign.

“Who is he and what does he bring to the table? Who is TK Mathew?” Asked Millan, a 31-year-old employee of the tax collector’s office.

With a budget of $34 million and 358 employees, the Hillsborough Tax Collector’s Office acts as an agent for state and local governments by collecting revenue and public funds, then redistributing the dollars to tax authorities. This year, that figure reached $2.1 billion in Hillsborough County.

The tax collector also acts as the office of the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, processing driver’s licenses, car registrations, and other documents on behalf of the state.

The operation was frequently praised under Belden, including becoming the first state tax collector’s office and Hillsborough’s first public agency, to win the Governor’s Sterling Award for performance and efficiency. But Millan said if elected it will not be a question of resting on past laurels.

“I can guarantee you it won’t be the status quo,” she said..

Instead of opening more physical locations, Millan wants to bring additional self-service kiosks to retail sites to improve efficiency. The office has already opened five of these kiosks since last year. And the tax collector is rolling out a new SMS system to alert customers when they can enter the office to do business. Likewise, it wants to use technology to provide virtual offices. All of these are aimed at limiting personal visits to the office and reducing wait times for service.

Mathew, who responded to written questions by email, criticizes the tax collector’s office, calling it mismanaged and wasteful. His platform includes reducing fees, adding hours of operation and expanding locations at MacDill Air Force Base and James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

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“Fee reduction” is the single most important element of the platform listed on Mathew’s campaign website. But the fees charged by the tax collector’s office are set by the state or local ordinance – not by the tax collector. Asked how he could reduce the state-mandated fee, Mathew said he would seek to reduce convenience fees assessed by third-party providers for customers paying by credit card.

The Hillsborough supplier charges 2.35%. In Pasco the tax is 2.5% and 2.95% in Pinellas.

“Good luck to him if he can reduce those costs,” Millan said.

Mathew, 43, said he was a self-employed small business owner. Previously, he worked in the tax collector’s office as a customer service representative and received satisfactory performance reviews. He said his experience in the private sector, coupled with his past employment at Belden, made him better prepared to lead the operation.

Among his criticisms are the long lines and poor customer service that send residents to other counties to conduct business there with tax collectors, effectively costing Hillsborough revenue.

Millan, however, noted that Department of Motor Vehicle transactions are wastes of money for tax collectors and are subsidized by property tax payments. Lines outside the tax collector’s office are now from people who don’t have appointments or people from outside Hillsborough doing business here, she said.

“That’s the difference between him and me. I know what I’m talking about,” Millan said.

Millan, who turns 54 later this month, has worked his way up the tax collector’s office and said his experience will get him started with no learning curve necessary.

There were no face-to-face debates or forums, virtual or otherwise, between the candidates, and Millan said they did not meet. Through campaign finance reports dated Sept. 25, Millan had raised more than $257,000 and spent just over $212,000. Mathew said he raised $117,000, largely on his own, and spent $47,000, with the biggest expense coming in June when he repaid a $12,000 loan to himself.

The tax collector is elected by voters from across the county. Early voting begins Monday, October 19.

Esther L. Steinbach