West and Cothran seek job as tax collector in Haywood
In the other 99 counties in the state, the tax collector is appointed—that is, hired—and serves at the pleasure of the county commissioners. But not at Haywood.
Six years ago, the nature of Haywood’s tax collector job was the subject of great debate when discord over the job performance of then-tax collector Mike Matthews became politicized. Matthews, a Republican, was excoriated for job performance issues by a Democratic-majority commission, but most notably by Republican Commissioner Kevin Ensley. For a brief period, Matthews was probably the most controversial figure in Haywood County politics, with a number of supporters on both sides of the aisle speaking out for and against him.
On February 20, 2017, the commissioners passed a resolution unanimously asking the Haywood County legislative delegation to give Haywood County voters a choice by referendum – elect or appoint.
The resolution went nowhere, largely due to opposition from the then representative. Michele Presnell, a Republican from Burnsville.
During the 2018 election cycle, Matthews was chosen by fellow Republican Andrew “Tubby” Ferguson, but survived the challenge; Matthews was not so lucky against Democrat Greg West, who was an assistant tax assessor at the time. West prevailed against Matthews by just 4.4 points, but posted solid early voting totals as well as a small victory in the Ivy Hill district – Haywood’s biggest and Matthews’ base.
Since then, West has pushed his collection rate higher than any of his two immediate predecessors, Matthews and David Francis, reaching 98.35% in 2021.
The collection rate is critical. By law, commissioners must build their budgets not on the total amount of tax levied, but rather on the levy multiplied by the collection percentage. Currently, West estimates that 1% of collections are worth around $460,000.
“I think it’s important work because the livelihood of the county comes from collecting taxes,” West said. “We support, obviously, the Sheriff’s Office, EMS, Haywood County schools, our local fire departments; they all receive taxpayers’ money and our citizens depend on these services. The better the recovery rate, the lower the tax rate can remain.
It also means that commissioners do not have to dip into the county’s healthy fund balance to make up for shortfalls. The fund balance is still large, but especially so as the county seeks a bond rating upgrade that could save taxpayers thousands when it tries to secure funding for the next expansion project. from the multi-million dollar prison.
West thinks the job is as much about people as it is about numbers.
“I mean, people want to pay their taxes, and I think you notice sometimes they go through tough times. It’s important for my office to listen to these people and do our best to come up with something that’s win-win for both of them,” he said. “Our staff is very friendly, customer oriented. This is something I ran on in 2018, on the premise that we could do better as a collection agency, and we did.
Enter Sebastian Cothran, a 21-year-old Republican from Canton. A 2019 Pisgah graduate, Cothran earned an associate’s degree at Haywood Community College and is currently a double major in accounting and political science at UNC-Asheville, where he serves as treasurer for the college Republicans.
“I’ve always been into politics and love tax accounting, and I’ve been an active election worker for Haywood County. I’ve been doing this since I was 18,” Cothran said. “I would give voters another choice for the tax collector because I think voters should have a choice instead of having people always opposed.”
Currently, Cothran is not working full-time and has yet to gain hands-on experience in the field, even as an intern. However, he’s remarkably educated about the position and its recent history – even recalling events that happened while he was still in high school.
“It’s not necessarily political work. The tax collector is one of the most important people in the county. They raise revenue for schools, EMS, all kinds of other things,” Cothran said. “There is always room for improvement until you reach 100% [collection rate] so even a hundredth of a percent means thousands of dollars for the county.
Well aware of the differences between himself and West, who ran some of the largest ColorTyme rent-to-own stores in the United States even before Cothran was born, Cothran believes he has a future in government.
“Not necessarily something against my opponent, but a lot of people in government have been there for a long time, and you can see how the country is today,” Cothran said. “We need new faces in politics and me being 21, I think I can be a new face in politics.”
Collection for Canton
Haywood tax collector Greg West isn’t the only one setting records with his tax collection percentage.
In Canton, City Manager Nick Scheuer may technically be the city’s appointed tax collector, but he said longtime staffer Wanda Lurvey runs the show and he’s grateful.
“We rely on these numbers when we budget and plan, not just for the next financial year, but for longer term plans. We are betting on receiving 98-100% of revenue. Without that revenue, we are sunk,” Scheuer said. “Obviously we wouldn’t be able to provide the services that we provide without Wanda going out and getting that revenue.”
In 2011, Canton hit a record high in delinquent taxes, at $187,273. When Lurvey took over in 2017 and at the end of the 2020 tax year, he had achieved an unprecedented collection rate of 99.27%, with an outstanding balance of just under $22,000.
Canton’s recovery rate would be even higher if it weren’t for a few troublesome small plots that have no apparent owners or heirs but aren’t large enough to be worth foreclosing on. the city.
Currently, the township’s tax collection rate for the past four years is at least 99.45% for all four years, primarily due to Lurvey’s willingness to work with taxpayers.
“They realize I’m here to help them,” Lurvey said. “The worst thing I can do is let them rack up debt that they can’t get out of.”