Tax collector investigated for alleged misconductComplaint sparks tax office probe
An independent investigation at the Haywood County Tax Collector’s office indicates internal problems due to an often-absent elected tax collector who appears to be unfamiliar with his duties, but the original employee complaint that started it all was not substantiated.
On the advice of legal counsel, county officials declined to release the report, citing personnel issues. A copy of the contract to perform the investigation was made available after a Freedom of Information Act request was filed.
Despite the county's refusal to release the report, a copy of it was received at The Mountaineer. Given that Matthews is a public official, that the report addresses issues of public interest and has no identifiable ties to specific personnel, The Mountaineer is publishing excerpts.
The investigation was initiated by the Haywood County Board of County Commissioners after a serious employee allegation, said Commission Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.
Typically, employee complaints are handled internally, but when the complaint is about an elected official, fairness called for an outside entity to handle the investigation, he said.
“It is our responsibility to take care of employees, and if there is a complaint and we overlook it and then something happens, we would be responsible,” he said.
Kirkpatrick declined to discuss the nature of the complaint to protect the privacy of the employee, but said the investigation indicated the complaint didn’t constitute a Title VII violation.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion.
Kirkpatrick said he was surprised by the cost of the investigation, and said it was unfortunate the county was faced with such a situation.
“There is no intent here to undermine Mike in any way,” Kirkpatrick stressed. “This was a serious allegation that needed to be investigated.”
Attorney Missy Spainhour with Davis Hartman Wright in Asheville, handled the investigation for a fee of $285 an hour fee plus expenses. The bill is estimated to be about $20,000 for the investigatory work, research and writing.
In her introduction, Spainhour stated she interviewed 16 witnesses, analyzed numerous documents and reviewed statements related to tax collection duties. She stressed that prior to the county hiring her firm, she had never met, spoken with, worked with or otherwise knew any of the witnesses or any county employee or official in Haywood.
Specific recommendations mentioned in the report in reference to Matthews included attendance, handling departmental issues and the relationship between the tax collector, commissioners and certain administrative staff. There were also witness statements on Matthews' use of alcohol during the day, sleeping or watching television or movies on his iPad during work hours, discussion of private romantic issues and angry outbursts, but Spainhour said there was no plainly substantiated evidence of this conduct.
“The vast majority of the witnesses reported that the tax collector’s attendance makes it very difficult for employees to seek guidance from him on job-related issues and, in some cases, to obtain mandatory signatures,” the report states, noting the tax collector is frequently away from the office, comes in late, takes long lunch breaks, leaves early and spends a lot of time on smoking breaks.
The tax collector reported he is in the office all day every day unless he is away for a work-related meeting or other appropriate reason and frequently eats lunch at his desk, the report continues, however data "generally corroborate witness reports."
Spainhour examined the “swipe” card and computer log-in records, which can track an individual's entrance into the building, but not the departures.
"On many days there are frequently daily 'swipes' or entrances back into the building and into the department offices from outside, indicating coming back into the building from outside (consistent with the reports of taking frequent smoke breaks," the report said.
The report recommended that the tax collector (and all department heads) should be in the office during working hours except for scheduled work-related meetings, vacation, holidays or illness.
“Not only would these changes allow employees and public access to the official for work-related questions and issues, it also sets a good example for employees and the community,” the report states.
The report states that while the witnesses liked the tax collector as a person, they have observed he generally does not seem to perform the tasks of the position, and that he generally does not provide the necessary supervisory and training support to his staff so that they could effectively handle the departmental duties on his behalf.
Specific issues raised included that the tax collector appears to be unfamiliar with his duties and responsibilities, and others — both inside and outside the department — have to step in to handle the statutory and other duties. Other issues stated that the tax collector used the only software available in the office, Keystone, only sporadically; the tax collector fails to attend training opportunities; and department employees feel they do not have adequate training or supervision to handle their tasks.
Witnesses reported they were handling the extra workload because of a duty to the county and taxpayers, but noted it caused additional stress.
The report states the tax collector said he has had ample training and attended sessions when offered, is familiar with his duties and notes his collection numbers are better than they have been historically.
The report states that, in addition to the “swipe” card evidence, a sampling of login and usage records for the Keystone software shows sporadic use by the tax collector.
For instance, from July 27, 2016, until Aug. 29, 2016, records showed the tax collector did not log onto the Keystone system at all.
“Notably, this occurred during a large portion of the time period between when the former deputy tax collector resigned on June 23, 2016, and when the new deputy tax collector started on Aug. 31. The deputy tax collector is second in command in the department and typically handles major office tasks … both former and current deputy tax collectors’ Keystone login records indicate frequent usage of the software to handle job duties,” the report states.
A footnote states that between December 2014 when the tax collector took office and Oct. 13, 2016, there were 13 separate periods of time when the tax collector did not log into the tax software for two weeks or more.
The report recommended issues could be resolved by regular attendance; all department employees, including the tax collector, becoming familiar with or refreshing their training on work-related requirements; and the county providing opportunities, either in-house or externally, where all parties work together to take advantage of additional resources.
The report states there is animosity and tension between the tax collector and certain members of the board of commissioners and county management. The tax collector attributes the animosity to his perception that the board and county officials did not want him to win the election and there is lingering hostility as a result.
The county manager and other county officials attribute the tension to their perception that the department is not being run properly, causing others to have to step in and handle the job requirements, the report states.
The tax collector is frustrated that the county manager has the hiring and firing authority over the tax collection department employees, which differs from the hiring and firing authority of other elected officials.
Employee witnesses expressed concerns about feeling caught in the middle and not fully supported by either side. The issues have been amplified by media coverage, the report states.
Spainhour’s report recommended the tax collector, county management and the board try to work through the issues to present a united front for the employees and community.
Spainhour indicated she looked into witness allegations that the tax collector sleeps or watches television or movies in his office; discusses private romantic issues with staff; curses during angry outbursts toward the staff; and had the smell of alcohol on his breath or appeared to be intoxicated in the office.
"There is no plainly substantiated evidence of the conduct described," Spainhour wrote. "Some of the conduct described is, while not ideal, not uncommon in a workplace and is not legally prohibited."
She recommended that employees should be reminded of county policies on workplace conduct and “to the extent elected officials are not subject to county policies, it is still recommended that basic general workplace rules be identified and followed.”
In the report, the tax collector denied each of the reports, though he admitted becoming frustrated when employees take non-personnel issues outside of the department.
In a follow-up interview with The Mountaineer, Matthews said if there is no evidence of something, it means it didn't happen.
While Matthews said it is hard to respond to the report contents since he has not officially seen it, though his attorney has read it to him. He said he is meeting with his attorney this week to discuss options.
Matthews said he knew nothing about the investigation before it started, but found out when he was called as a “witness” to be interviewed.
“She said she was looking into a personnel complaint, and I got the feeling it was about me,” he said. “I wouldn’t talk to them without a lawyer.”
Matthews said his attorney indicated that whatever complaint was being investigated was unfounded, and said he still has no idea what the exact complaint was.
“From what I understand, this problem could have been handled with a conversation,” Matthews said in an interview. “That was a total waste of taxpayers’ money to have something come back unfounded. I intend to sue them for my attorney fees.”
While the report has been commissioned and delivered, the matter “is not over on my part, by any means,” Matthews said.
He has submitted his attorney’s bill to the county for work done so far, but indicated there is more to come.
In response to specific allegations in the report, Matthews said he regularly uses the Keystone software, but when he has meetings scheduled with constituents, the clerical staff often gives him a printed sheet of paper to work from. He said he is in the office all the time except when he has meetings outside the office and frequently eats lunch at his desk.
“If they would just leave me alone and let us all do our jobs, our numbers would be even better than they are,” Matthews said, referencing his 97 percent tax collection rate, which he said is the highest ever. “My numbers are good. I don’t care how they try to spin it. My collection rate is up and the delinquencies are down. There’s no other way to look at it.”
He confirmed there is a “huge” amount of tension between himself, the board of commissioners and county administrative staff.
“When I first came in here, I was willing to work with all of them and do whatever I could to make this county successful,” he said. “I was willing to work with them every step of the way. I’d send emails and get no response. Every attempt I made to reach out has been ignored.”
Matthews said he has reached the point where it is hard to be civil toward the board members or administration.
“As far as I’m concerned, I wasn’t elected to appease or make the commissioners happy,” he said. “I campaigned on treating people right, and you would think they would be happy with that because that’s just what we’re doing and are still being successful.”
Matthews said his philosophy is to work with people voluntarily to pay their taxes and use forced collections as a last resort, regardless of who they are.
“I’ve had people against me ever since I served (as an alderman) in Maggie Valley. They’ll come in here needing help and I’ll work with them just as I would my best friend,” Matthews said. “With what I’m doing, revenue is up and complaints are down. You’d think that would make them happy.”