NEW PORT RICHEY — Tax Collector Mike Olson has made no secret of his plans to abandon strip center offices in the central part of the county and build two regional offices with closed courses for driving tests.
He even made it a central part of his successful 2012 re-election campaign.
But now, that campaign promise may put him at odds with county commissioners. With revenues slightly down from last year, they are faced with paying higher pension costs, rescuing a fire budget from the red, relieving jail overcrowding and giving out the first employee pay raises in about five years.
They are counting on constitutional officers to return any unspent money from their previous year's budgets, which commissioners use to help fund the next year's spending plan.
Clerk of the Circuit Court Paula O'Neil expects to give back $80,000, while Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley expects to turn in $50,000. Property Appraiser Mike Wells expects to give back about $450,000, though he doesn't have a final figure. A Sheriff's Office spokesperson did not return calls for comment.
"What the tax collector is tentatively saying is that they'll not be returning $3.3 million in excess fees this year because he is looking at building in the south central part of the county," Assistant County Administrator Heather Grimes said during a budget workshop last week. "So that causes some concern."
Her statement drew criticism from county commissioners, who said they wished Olson would postpone his plans for a year or two and perhaps work with the county as it develops a new master facilities plan.
"That amount is similar to what it would cost to give our employees a raise," Commissioner Kathryn Starkey noted.
Chairman Ted Schrader said, "If you're running a business, that's a profit that needs to be returned back to the Board of County Commissioners."
Trouble is, Olson said, is that Grimes' statement isn't true.
"I've not told them they were not to going to get any excess fees," said Olson, who did not attend the workshop. "I've not said anything."
In fact, Olson told the Tampa Bay Times he doesn't yet know how much excess fees his office will have. He sent a letter to the county Friday saying the same thing. Unlike other constitutional officers, whose budgets are due June 1, his budget isn't due until August.
"We're not just an agent of the County Commission," he said. "We serve as agents for Tallahassee. Tax collectors are the state's Departments of Motor Vehicles."
Unlike other constitutional officers, Olson takes in a good chunk of money on behalf of the state. His office issues hunting and fishing licenses and vehicle registrations. It also gives road tests and issues driver's licenses. Each time the office collects that money, it charges customers a fee. Those fees make up the majority of the office's operating revenues.
His office also collects property taxes levied by the county.
At the workshop, Schrader questioned whether Olson is even required to return any fees. Legislation enacted in 2011 gave tax collectors autonomy in buying and leasing property and building offices, County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder said.
"If he spends the fees prior to the time he would normally return them, that's a legitimate expense for the tax collector," Steinsnyder said.
Olson said the legislation was needed as tax collectors take on more state duties.
"Tax collectors are in the process of becoming the sole exclusive providers of driver's license services," he said.
He said the office on U.S. 41 is a safety hazard, with at least 30 accidents reported as of last year. A new building would include a closed course for the tests.
Olson pointed out how he has always been a team player. The Gulf Harbors office on U.S. 19 was a joint venture. He also contributed $70 million in fees to county coffers during his 32-year tenure.
"I'll be the first person to acknowledge that county employees need a raise, but the tax collector and the tax collector's customers have needs as well,'' he said. "And we're going to fulfill them."
He is currently looking at property and hopes to begin construction as soon as possible.
"Land prices are creeping up," he said. "Building prices are going up. The longer anybody on the County Commission waits, the more expensive projects are going to become."