By LEAH STRATMANN
Public officials are often looked at with a leery eye by the electorate, and said scrutiny can become even more intense when public officials in neighboring counties are being caught with hands in the till or are engaging in questionable business practices with taxpayer funds.
For the past few weeks, rumors have been spreading in Walton County to the effect that the Tax Collector’s Office, under the direction of Rhonda Skipper, was systematically engaging in a series of unauthorized bonuses and unearned promotions for the office staff.
“We don’t give bonuses,” Skipper said unequivocally. “Our budget is approved through the Florida Department of Revenue and we use county guidelines for salaries.” Skipper explained the 27 employees in the office are given merit and incentive raises once a year and at present the office has only $25,000 per year to use for those raises. “We don’t use it all. All pay raises are given at the end of the fiscal year, which is the end of September,” she said.
Skipper said she was happy The Herald had come to her to put the rumors to rest — rumors she herself had heard. “I take great pride in my integrity,” she said. Asked to speculate on why she was being slandered, she said she had no idea how such stories got started, but suggested perhaps it was someone unhappy with the people in the Tax Collector’s Office trying to make trouble.
The county Tax Collector’s Office is an office independent of Walton County and the office is allowed to keep 3 percent of everything collected in November and December, and 1 percent of taxes collected in the other months. Taxes include property tax, fishing and hunting licenses, automobile license plates and title charges, or roughly $3.5 million per year. Skipper says her office gives money back to the county every year, usually around $2 million, and noted the office had not had an increase in operating fees since 1983.
“This office tries to do the right thing every day. We are currently working on an open government page on the Internet to provide transparency in this office. When finished the page will show salaries of employees. I don’t want to hide anything,” she asserted.
Kara Stallings, communications director for the office, explained the office’s policy on promotion and filling vacancies. “In regards to promoting within, it is always the policy of our office to promote in-house should a promotional opportunity arise. Due to the size of our office and employee retention rate, these opportunities do not arise very often and we certainly have employees who are very deserving. We obviously always want to find the most qualified applicant, so should we feel that internal candidates may not be the most qualified for the position, then we advertise the position. We do advertise all entry-level positions,” she noted.
Skipper echoed those sentiments, saying, “We like to promote from within when possible. All employees are evaluated on attendance, knowledge, and technical skills and probationary periods can last from six months to one year.”
Leah Stratmann can be contacted at email@example.com.