Monday, May 21, 2018
Opinion

Tax Collector Mike Olson's death closes chapter in Pasco politics

It will be strange writing a different name on the check.

Mike Olson, Tax Collector.

We've been doing it since 1981. To pay our property taxes. To renew the tag for the auto. To buy a license to open a business, go hunting or drive a car. Just make the check payable to Mike Olson, Tax Collector.

Olson was in his 33rd year as Pasco's tax collector and had been a county commissioner for six years prior, including four years as chairman. His nearly four decades of serving the public ended abruptly when he died June 26, three days after suffering a stroke.

This is a cliche, but it truly is the end of an era. It is hard to believe in this staunch Republican county, but it used to be the Democrats — led by Olson, Property Appraiser Ted Williams and the late John Long, first as a state representative and later as school superintendent — whose political acumen dominated Pasco's election cycles. They were in public office themselves, but they also recruited potential candidates or blessed the efforts of others via networking, fundraising and political advice. They were political consultants before the term joined the every day vernacular. Olson was the tactical guy. Among other things, he did the research — clipping newspaper articles was a hobby — and prepared campaign literature that often pointed out a Republican's vulnerabilities.

Williams left office in 1996. Long died just a year after his 2004 retirement. Then the electoral defeats and party-switchers left Olson, 68, as the Pasco Democratic Party's standard bearer. With Republican Gov. Rick Scott responsible for appointing a successor, now Pasco County has likely lost its last Democrat in countywide office.

But party affiliation didn't matter when it came to serving in this constitutional office. Being tax collector isn't a particularly sexy job. You do not legislate. You do not get your picture taken at ribbon-cuttings. You do not attend the chambers' banquet circuit. What you do is serve customers. Olson did it extraordinarily well. He knew banking, management and his professional operations embodied what ordinarily would be considered an oxymoron — government efficiency.

He supplied more than $70 million to the county's general fund over the years; money his office had collected, but not spent, in excess license fees. It was a windfall that routinely bailed out commissioners too timid to seek a tax rate increase or understandably reluctant to cut services to the public.

Olson knew politics, and requiring patrons (voters) to write his name on their payment checks built name recognition, not resentment. And, he was shrewd enough to use his middle name. "Mike'' looked a lot better on the ballot than "Karl'' during the Cold War.

Ask Ed Blommel or Keith Sumner. Even Olson's one-time pal, the late David "Hap'' Clark Jr., who had been a two-term county commissioner, was no match for Olson's favorable ratings or stellar reputation. They were his only campaign opponents in 32 years. Blommel, the 2012 challenger, did the best of the three and still collected less than 32 percent of the vote. Or, consider this measure of the tax collector's popularity: Republicans passed Democrats for the lead among registered voters in Pasco County in 1999, but the GOP didn't field a candidate against Olson until 13 years later.

Nobody wanted the challenge. Olson could dissect campaign strategies to determine what worked and what didn't even down to the minutia of how to pose someone for a portrait. A candidate with his or her arms crossed in front of the sternum wasn't the way to go. It meant you were rigid, not welcoming to new ideas or information.

Welcoming new ideas was one of Olson's attributes and he did so whether it involved technology, cross-training employees or advancing customer service. In that regard, his time on the County Commission was under-appreciated. Olson was the swing vote to bring something new to Pasco County in the mid 1970s — zoning laws. It required political courage, the kind that isn't always in plentiful supply when the commission must confront the building/development community.

He could share pointed and sometimes profane observations during private conversations, but Olson also was careful about what he said for public consumption. He did not openly criticize commissioners, even the current all-Republican batch that wants to spend the refund money the tax collector had planned to escrow for new service centers. Olson had been a commissioner. He considered it a difficult job and he didn't care to make it harder for those doing it now.

His professional performance, however, did make it harder on the next person. Fair or not, his successor forever will be compared to Mike Olson, Tax Collector.

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