The Florida Department of Revenue is one of those arcane state agencies that quietly keeps the wheels of government turning. It should be led by seasoned experts in tax law and property valuations, but now its top ranks have been compromised by young, inexperienced, unqualified hires who have friends in high places, particularly Rick Scott. This is political patronage at its worst and a shamelessly political scheme by the lame duck governor.
The shakeup is in DOR’s Office of Property Tax Oversight, which oversees and assists local governments in property tax administration. The work it does is apolitical and largely unseen by the public but vitally important in ensuring uniform and efficient tax collections. Local property appraisers regularly rely on the office for guidance. Over the last month, Leon Biegalski, the head of DOR, pushed out several of the office’s leaders and replaced them with newbies whose only apparent qualification is blind loyalty to a governor who could care less about the inner workings of government.
Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported the staff changes. The director of the Office of Property Tax Oversight, Maurice Gogarty, was ousted despite his 30 years of experience. In his place is Brandi Gunder, a 34-year-old lawyer and Scott’s former education budget coordinator. She has no tax policy experience but will be paid $6,000 more than Gogarty was making. The office’s new deputy director is a 31-year-old lawyer who also has no tax experience, replacing a woman who had worked her way up over the last eight years. The new budget manager is 24. She started as an intern for Scott in 2015. That job was previously held by someone with 34 years of budget experience. Another new appointee is a friend of Biegalski with no college degree, and another was put in a job that state law requires be held by a lawyer but who doesn’t have a law degree. In a statement, Biegalski called this new crew "highly qualified."
Scott has just months left in office and is focused on his run for U.S. Senate. When he leaves the Governor’s Mansion, many people in the offices under him will be out of a job. Thus the moves at DOR have been long planned — as vacancies opened up and employees retired over the last year, the Office of Property Tax Oversight was told to hold the positions open, Klas reported. Then a stack of resumes from Scott’s office arrived. The director and deputy director positions were never advertised, the new people in those jobs were not trained by the veterans they replaced, and none of the new hires filled out applications. Why mess with all that paperwork when the fix is in?
Putting these loyalists in the Office of Property Tax Oversight was especially shrewd, because DOR answers to both the governor and the state Cabinet. So the next governor won’t be able to unilaterally fire these unqualified hires. But it’s a transparently terrible way to operate a state agency, about as swift as having your next-door neighbor do your taxes. He’s not an accountant, but he comes to all of your barbecues.
Scott, a former health care CEO, has long preached the idea of running government like a business. Does any smart business person push out veterans and experts in favor of unqualified and inexperienced replacements because they never question the boss? It would be foolish in any industry. In government, it’s called cronyism.