Sonya Little, who was appointed to fill the position in February 2011 when then-Tax Commissioner David Fields resigned from the post, went up against Kenny Phelps and Robert Wilkie in the debate at the GOP Headquarters in Towne Lake.
Though Little currently holds the title, she will not be listed as an incumbent on the ballot, according to Elections Supervisor Janet Munda.
Little was appointed chief deputy tax commissioner in 1997 and has worked in the office ever since.
“In my first year as tax commissioner, my team has enhanced services, reduced staff and implemented Saturday hours,” Little said. “We were able to accomplish these goals and stay under 7 percent of the forecasted budget and maintaining our commitment to customer service.”
But both of her opponents said the office needs to implement changes.
Phelps said his major adjustments to the office would include treating all tax collectors, including elected officials, fairly and to improve customer service to create “true transparency.” Phelps, who said he has worked in the Cherokee County Engineering Department for the past 25 years, lauded his recognition as the county’s Employee of the Year for 2009.
Wilkie also said customer service as an area of improvement and said he intends to improve customer service the office while still seeking out ways to reduce costs for taxpayers.
The No. 1 challenge for the office, Little said, is communication between the tax commissioner’s and tax assessor’s office and not being able to provide both city and county tax services at one location.
“I think that when you streamline that… you provide one-stop shopping for the taxpayers,” Little said. “For example, if there was an error made in an exemption we could fix it right there.”
Phelps said the tag lines in the Woodstock office are exceptionally long and Wilkie agreed, both citing staffing changes and reorganization as strategies to fix the problem.
Wilkie also suggested implementing Qmatic, a customer flow management queuing system that he said would cost about $30,000.
“What that does is allow you to know the exact time of how long folks are sitting and waiting for tags, so when times are getting excessive, you can send someone out there. To me, it’s the only logical way to look at it.”
An audience member question asked Little why there has been so much turnover of employees in her office.
Little responded by saying that in the last year, she’s only had one of her employees move out of state and another leave because of a medical condition.
“The average longevity of my entire team is seven years,” Little said.
Another audience member question asked Phelps how he could run the office with no previous experience in tax and titles.
“Tax and titles is, if you go on the website and look at it, it’s pretty much a PDF format that you fill out,” Phelps said. “It’s self-explanatory.”
He said that he expects classes he will be required to attend beforehand to prepare him for the job.
“It’s not a job like a state representative … you don’t pass laws, you just follow procedures,” Phelps said.
When asked about the difficulty in collecting taxes on foreclosed homes, Little said her office has a history of putting pressure on bank-owned properties.
“It is a little bit more challenging,” Little said. “I have 98 percent collection rate. (The office) is in the top 30 in the state collections.”
However, Phelps said he sees delinquent tax collection as a problem.
“If (the state) doesn’t get this money, they’re going to turn around and raise your taxes,” Phelps said.
Little said she believes the election will come down to qualification and demonstrated experience.
“This is not a job where someone can become proficient in on-the-job training,” Little said. “No one in the county wants to give this important position to someone who is not qualified.”
Each candidate was asked an audience question by moderator Jeff Duncan to list his or her top three relevant experiences that qualify each for the position.
Phelps said he can provide complete customer service, team building and government experience for the past 25 years.
Wilkie said his knowledge of the county, vast real estate experience and his customer service and employee relations qualify him for the position.
Little lauded her 10 years of experience with the tax office, extensive training, and several years providing oversight of tax sales, property tax collection and other functions of the office.
When candidates were allowed to ask each other questions, Little asked Wilkie why he offered her the position of chief deputy tax commissioner May 21 if she would withdraw from the race.
“If you had that much confidence in me to run the office as chief deputy tax commissioner, why are you in this race?” she asked.
Wilkie said he offered her a job, but not as chief deputy tax commissioner, and would not hire her now.
In the candidate question round, Phelps asked Wilkie if he has paid all of his taxes on time.
“I lost my father Jan. 5 and I lost my grandmother in February,” Wilkie said. “I’ve been taking care of a couple of things … my taxes were paid a month late and I’m sorry about it.”
Wilkie also accused Little of hiring too many temporary workers and asked why she felt she needed to do so.
Little said she only hires two for assistance during property tax season.
“During property tax season, to save the taxpayers $25,000, we do it in-house and get temporary workers,” Little said.