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Chron overview of the Tax Assessor primary

Having just reported on the vehicle registration problems at the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, the Chron now writes about the GOP primary for that office.

A Houston Chronicle story Friday reported Sumners’ staff is working overtime to process a backlog of auto registrations so motorists are not ticketed for driving with expired decals. [Challenger Mike] Sullivan said current and former tax office workers have reached out to share concerns with its operations.

[Incumbent Don] Sumners blamed the backlog on a communication breakdown among staff and county budget cuts. Sumners fired seven managers after taking office, in part to save money, and laid off another 25 clerks after budget cuts came down a year ago.

“In effect, I could take their place because of the experience that I had and the education that I had,” Sumners said. “When asked about what he would do since he doesn’t have the experience, (Sullivan’s) response was, ‘I’d hire people that do.’ That’d be great if there was money in the budget.”

Sullivan said Sumners’ removal of those seven managers was not a benefit to taxpayers because it took out institutional knowledge that could have improved the office’s operations.

“The budget cut that has been imposed on the tax office now is not significant enough to justify the long lines that are there. I’ve worked at City Hall now for five years with decreasing budgets and more demand on services. We have done more with less,” Sullivan said. “After (former tax assessor) Paul (Bettencourt) left the office, there’s been a continual decline and degradation in service, and it’s got to be turned around.”

When you cut funding for a government service, you are arguing – implicitly or explicitly – one of two things: Either the same level of service can be provided with less funding, or the service cutbacks that will be necessitated are good things in and of themselves. By cutting staff, including all those managers whose work Sumners said he could do himself, Sumners is making the former argument. Clearly, however, it is not the case that the service is being provided at the same level as it had been. I continue to be fascinated by the extent to which Sumners is blaming other factors for this drop in service – a three percent increase in new car sales and title transactions (I base that calculation on the numbers cited by Sumners in the original Chron story; budget cuts that led to the staff reductions that Sumners himself implemented; “communications breakdowns”, whatever that means – but I have not seen in either of these stories a statement from him that he owns the problem and is working to fix it. I have a low opinion of Sumners so I can’t say I’m surprised at any of this, but it’s always nice to have one’s opinions validated by the facts.

Sullivan, for his part, lists on his Issues tab a desire to keep all 15 branch offices open and to “reduce long lines at branch offices”. One presumes that would require more staff, which in turn means more money for the Tax Assessor’s office. It’s not clear how he plans to accomplish that, though he does also say that he wants to “embrace new technology to improve services for constituents (i.e., kiosks that accept payments so people do not have to stand in line to make payments; use electronic delivery for tax bills to those who want them as opposed to mailing out physical tax bills)”. That’s all laudable and I’d support it, but it too will cost money up front. Again I wonder what Commissioners Court thinks of all this, since they are both the implicit target of Sumners’ whining about budget cuts as well as the source of any funding Sullivan would request to fix these problems. Sheriff Adrian Garcia eventually convinced the Court to let him hire more deputies to help reduce the amount he had to spend on overtime, so it can be done. We just don’t know yet what their default position is.

Of course, if we really want a change at this position, it’s not the primary that matters but the November election and the candidacy of Ann Harris Bennett, who was one of the Democrats’ top votegetters as the County Clerk candidate in the 2010 debacle. Bennett is certainly qualified for the job, and while she’s not getting much attention now as she’s unopposed for the nomination, she’s one of the most important Democrats on the Harris County ballot this year. I guarantee you, we’ll have far fewer problems with voter registration if Bennett wins this fall. I feel pretty certain that if she can handle that – and she can – she can do a better job with auto registrations as well.

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  1. Ross says:

    As far as I can tell, there are no problems with voter registration in Harris County. I have seen no evidence that anyone who is eligible has been refused registration.

    Other arguments for cutting funding for a government service are that there is less demand for that service due to changes in the law or a need that has gone away, or that there are too many staff as a result of efficiencies, either process or technology. You could also argue that government should follow the lead of business and outsource routine administrative tasks to other countries, although I’m not a fan of that.

    I do think government ought to do what businesses do and periodically review staffing levels. There’s no reason for any employee anywhere to think they are totally immune from lay offs and have a job for life.

    I am no fan of Sumners, his predecessor seems to have been far more competent. And Bettencourt, whatever you think of his politics, managed to keep things going smoothly. I would be much happier, though, if jobs like this, and the county clerk and district clerk were non-partisan.

  2. Kristin says:

    I am a lifelong resident of Texas.

    I registered to vote in Galveston County when I became eligible.

    I re-registered to vote in Harris County when I moved.

    It took 4 separate applications at three offices, and many many phone calls to get this supposedly simple process completed.

    Something is broken.

  3. Joseph Houston says:

    Sumners can argue his competency all he likes and claim the fired staff were not needed but the proof is in the pudding; the long lines and need of overtime to “catch up”. Wholesale cuts in staff result in demoralizing the staff that remains and lower service levels, a truism in the private sector as well as public no matter what brand of Kool Aid the leaders are selling. It is possible some cuts were needed due to budget issues and it is possible that Commissioner’s Court would have accepted Sumners reasoning as a leader had he provided any but we’ll never know because he is too busy making excuses.

  4. joshua bullard says:

    ross-sometimes you just outright piss me off-ross,what in gods name is wrong with you, of course we need the jobs to be with a party,i know what your thinking ross,it sounds good in theory,but in reality the people ross,they decide with their votes,now i dont know about you but i dont want to have some overregulating clerk ,therefore i need to know their party stance,your whole dream of non partisan is just that-a dream,now lets get back to the politics……….

    that invite for that lunch is still valid ross,and the walmart visit still stands,,

    untill then, cool it on all this independent ticket crap,especially in harris county………….”you wanna deal,or do you wanna deal””””””””””””””””””””””

    joshua ben bullard

  5. Maggie says:

    Don Sumners, two thumbs down!

    Don Sumners seems to be generally an unethical person in my opinion and as well as most of the public’s. Did you not see the letter that he sent out to the existing employees at the county that essentially told them they were all fired? The link is below. It was extremely inappropriate and he fired people without cause simply because he didn’t like them. The tax office lost a lot of good people because of his “opinion”. (And no before anyone says it I did not used to work for the tax office; I am not even in a related field of employment).

    The letter:

    Registration Issues

    This is absolutely ridiculous, look at the problems he has caused regarding registrations in Harris County? Again, another supporting link is below. He’s been in office for how long now and just noticed this?

    Here is his direct quote:
    “We did sort of get caught a little bit flat footed,” said Harris County Tax Assessor Don Sumners. “I did not realize the backlog had grown to the extent that it had.” (From ABC Local)

    To me that is not an acceptable excuse especially if you’ve gotten a ticket over not having a sticker on your car. If he can’t even keep that under control, how do you expect he will do such a great job with our taxes?

    He also went on to say “To work through the backlog, Sumners says his staff is working weekends and now the delay for mail in renewals is down to about 10 days.” (From ABC Local)

    Maybe if you hadn’t fired the majority of your staff for no cause this wouldn’t have happened Mr. Sumners. Again, I’m not impressed.

    Also do you know that he is affiliated with the KSP? KSP is an illegal political committee group here in Houston; I’m sure many people do not know this. The democratic party was awarded judgment in their suit. This further strengthens the evidence that this man is unethical and has other interests than that of the public in mind.

    1] Don Sumners, the Republicans Tax Assessor Collector & Voter Registrar, also has ties to the KSP as demonstrated by this piece published during 2010 campaign.

    The Texas Democratic Party in 2010 filed a lawsuit against the King Street Patriots (KSP) upon the group’s emergence in Harris County. The KSP is a Tea Party Republican group which was registered as a nonprofit corporation but was clearly operating as an illegal, unregistered political action committee intent on electing Republicans. The 261st District Court granted summary judgment to the Texas Democratic Party on all issues on which the Court had jurisdiction.

    If this isn’t enough for you, then I’ll close with this.
    There is a federal case pending that involves Sumners and it is in regards to people being denied the right to vote. This is not just a Democratic Party initiative, it encompasses everyone’s right to vote. “The case also knocks Harris County voter officials for failing to disclose information on why so many new voters’ applications have been rejected in recent years. Tax Assessor Collector Don Sumners said Monday he would not comment.”