By Jacob Engels
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Central Florida power-couple Scott & Susannah Randolph. Both, prominent and well placed in Democrat and progressive politics, had a lot to say. For Scott, who serves as the Orange County Tax Collector we stuck to his experiences in the Tax Collector’s office so far. With Susannah, we hit politics. Our Q&A’S with Scott and Susannah are below.
Our Q&A with Scott Randolph, Orange County Tax Collector –
By Orlando photographer Rob Bartlett
It’s been over 6 months since you assumed the Orange County Tax Collectors post. How are you settling in?
It’s been a very exciting time for the last twelve months. I was lucky to come into an office with experienced, dedicated staff. Nonetheless, I think it’s been good for the office to bring in some fresh perspective and new ideas.
With the State of Florida handing us the unfunded mandate of all DHSMV functions, it never slows down at our offices. With just 260 employees we oversee more than 1.5 million transactions that total nearly $2 billion every year. More than 740,000 people walked through our doors, while we processed more than 300,000 mail and online payments. Another 300,000 phone calls were answered to help people through the process.
What has been your most difficult challenge so far?
Our biggest challenge is to overcome the perception that a trip to one of our offices will consume an entire day and bring frustration and bureaucracy along with it. It’s also frustrating that for at least until the middle of this year, the state has one more DHSMV office that is severely understaffed as it winds down its presence in Orange County, and many times we get complaints from people who mistakenly think they were at our office when they were actually at the DHSMV office.
Overall, people are just now understanding that they are at their locally-elected Tax Collector’s Office for all of their DHSMV transactions, including driver’s license.
When I first took office, we had some of the longest wait times in the state—more than an hour in January 2013. We had invested in technology and adopted new strategies for getting people to do their transactions online or through the mail. Our January 2014 wait times were just under 35 minutes. Our customer surveys show that people expect to wait no more than 20-25 minutes and we will strive to meet that this year.
Your critics accuse you of staffing the tax collectors office with political cronies. What say you??
I think people find that any new CEO will bring with them a few trusted people that they have worked with before. Those people know the new CEO’s goals and expectations and can help to quickly spread that throughout the office. Again, we had great, experienced staff to work with, and the influx of new ideas and perspectives has created a very good mix at the office.
Mayor Jacobs and her allies have been gunning for you and the tax collectors office, proposing it be shut down. Other than you being out of a job, why is this a bad idea?
First, the Tax Collector’s position should be thought of as the third leg of a stool designed to eliminate undue influence over local property taxes—the Property Appraiser sets the value of a piece of property; the local tax authorities sets the millages; and the Tax Collector ensures fair tax collection for everyone. It is critical that each one maintain accountability straight to the voters.
There are 3 counties with appointed Tax Collectors. In Miami, the department housing the Tax Collector’s functions has been under federal investigation twice in the last ten years. It is currently under investigation for keeping two sets of books in order to commit securities fraud in a bond issuance.
In addition, Orange County is only one of 63 taxing authorities for which we collect taxes. Having an appointed tax collector under Orange County government can create serious conflicts. In Miami and Broward counties, the county has attempted to abate or settle back taxes in bankruptcy cases and for “economic development,” which can wipe out millions owed to other taxing authorities.
Another example of a real conflict is the Orange County held tax certificates. State law says that the County shall apply for tax deeds for any outstanding tax certificates on property assessed at more than $5,000. The County has refused to do so for years until we threatened lawsuit this year, and they are still dragging their feet. The County is the only one with the statutory authority to initiate the tax deed process, but only a fraction of the back taxes owed are to Orange County. Most of the taxes are owed to schools, stormwater, road improvement districts, etc. If the tax collector was an appointed position inside the county, this process would never happen and other taxing authorities would be detrimentally affected.
Second, the state has also delegated virtually all DHSMV functions to local Tax Collectors. There will be no DHSMV offices in Orange County by May 2014. State law prohibits local governments from taking over these functions, so moving to an appointed Tax Collector threatens people’s ability to perform these functions in Orange County—they may have to drive outside the county to renew their tags or get their driver’s license.
In addition, in all three counties with appointed tax collectors, the county has privatized the tag agencies. This has resulted in significantly higher fees for taxpayers. The County is allowed to keep the same fee and then contract with a private company that then tacks on additional fees. If you were to apply the same fee schedule as Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Orange County taxpayers would pay nearly $20 million in additional fees.
What are you most proud of accomplishing since taking office?
My goal is to show that government can be run efficiently and effectively. We are becoming a more metric driven office that tries to respond to the needs and expectation of the taxpayer, rather than the other way around.
When we invest in new technology or expand the office, the first question is always what is the cost/benefit of this action. What are we saving by spending money on Facebook ads to get people to pay online? Will the office expansion reduce wait times and meet taxpayer expectations?
What is on the horizon for the Orange County Tax Collectors office in 2014?
We are pushing the state to allow us the ability to do what we call “Tag Express.” We believe that more than half of the people that renew tags in person are there simply because they waited until the last minute. These are simple transactions, yet they are clogging the offices. We are having to negotiate with the state so that someone could perform the transaction online, choose an office to pick the tag up at, and simply come in and pick it up at the greeter’s station with no waiting.
We are also pushing to absorb more transactions by local governments. We already have the technology and the equipment, and we are pricing whether we can help other local governments save money.
Finally, our goal is to become a one stop shop for people. We are partnering with the Department of Health to issue birth certificates needed for driver’s licenses. I would like the Social Security Administration to partner with us and use one or two of our offices to issue social security cards. I would even like to utilize our offices for Early Voting sites if needed, as we have a queuing system and seating for more than 100 people at 8 offices around the state.
Our Q&A with Susannah Randolph, progressive powerhouse and District Director for the bombastic Alan Grayson –
By Orlando photographer Rob Bartlett
From Pink Slip Rick, to serving on Alan Grayson’s congressional and campaign staff – you have been very busy these past few years. What’s new for 2014?
More of the same, busy as ever! We just completed an outstanding year in Congressman Grayson’s district office. As his District Director, I take pride in working with a team of outstanding individuals who work very hard for the 700,000 constituents in District 9. In 2013 alone, we racked up more than $500,000.00 in constituent savings through our one-on-one meetings with constituents to assist them with VA claims, Social Security disability, and IRS tax returns. Between that, our assistance in helping the Congressman with legislation, outreach, and events, and being a mom to a fiesty toddler, I am staying very busy!
Locally – What do you view as the most important matter in the 2014 elections?
The most important matter in 2014 is electing a County Mayor who is fair and is held to the same set of rules as Orange County citizens.
Unfortunately, the people of Orange County have seen a Mayor who was willing to violate the county charter (constitution) just to keep people from voting on the issue of earned sick time. As the result of a public records request, Orange County citizens were made aware of the fact that the Mayor was secretly texting with a lobbyist who was currently involved in a lawsuit to stop those citizens from placing the issue on the ballot. In that text, she took instructions on how to run the meeting in a way that would stop the issue from reaching the ballot.
This proves what many have said: the Mayor believes that she is above the rules.
In 2010, Teresa Jacobs qualified to run for Orange County Mayor by submitting 6,800 petitions. Yet, when 50,000 citizens of Orange County signed a petition asking for a vote on Earned Sick Time they were denied that right. Teresa’s “two sets of rules” left Orange County voters without a voice.
Above all, the most important matter is electing leaders who are fair and who are held to the same set of rules as Orange County residents.
Tell us something not many know about yourself, Scott, and your daughter.
We love the Orlando Science Center and Lake Eola. Our daughter is the apple of our eye and our absolute number one priority. What she loves is what we love: which, at the moment is swans at Lake Eola and (gulp) snakes and alligators at the Science Center.
Do you think “Textgate” will be a driving factor in the 2014 elections?
Yes. In fact, it should be THE driving factor. Voters should remember that rather than listening to their testimony and allowing their vote on an issue that is important to middle class and working families, the Mayor chose instead to secretly text with special interest lobbyists who were suing to stop the initiative from reaching the ballot (despite 50,000 citizen signatures).
Let’s handicap some local races – Who wins and why?
Orange County Mayors Race
Val Demings will win because of her proven track record as a leader. Teresa Jacobs will lose because of Textgate and her lack of leadership in turning a Commission meeting over to a special interest lobbyist.
Orange County Commission District 4
Euri Cerrud will win. Euri will give our Commission a fresh and important perspective that is needed in order to properly represent our very diverse and growing county.
Florida Congressional District 9
Alan Grayson will win, of course! Alan has shown a tremendous commitment to the district through his advocacy for the real issues that impact the daily lives of his constituents. He fought to keep Kissimmee Gateway Airport open and won. By doing so, he protected Kissimmee’s local economy. Through Alan’s federal grants program, he has helped bring $6.5 million to the Orange County Firefighters which kept stations open and created 45 new positions. Alan has been named the “Most Effective Congressman” by Slate Magazine and has been recognized by Politico for having filed the most bills in the House.
Alan’s opponents will have a hard time making the case that they can be more effective for the constituents of District 9.
Jacob Engels, is the Founder of East Orlando Post & Seminole County Post. He is a seasoned political operative who has led numerous statewide political groups and has worked on several high-profile local, statewide, and national races. Jacob has been interviewed on national television & radio programs, with his work having been featured in the Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald and other publications nationwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org