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Pinellas Tax Collector Republican primary pits ex-employee against former boss

Joyell Bobala is challenging her former boss, tax collector Charles Thomas, who is running for a second term.
Joyell Bobala, left, a former tax supervisor, is challenging her former boss, Tax Collector Charles Thomas, right, in the republican primary for tax collector.
Joyell Bobala, left, a former tax supervisor, is challenging her former boss, Tax Collector Charles Thomas, right, in the republican primary for tax collector. [ Joyell Bobala/Charles Thomas ]
Published Jul. 17, 2020

The two Republican primary candidates for Pinellas County Tax Collector describe the organization in drastically different ways.

Incumbent Charles Thomas, 63, says his first term raised the caliber of the department, proven by customer and employee satisfaction scores in the 90s, a 2020 Governor’s Sterling Award given for “visionary leadership” and innovative initiatives under his watch, like mobile kiosks to renew vehicle registrations.

His challenger, Joyell Bobala, 44, resigned as a tax supervisor in May after 21 years in the office. She said she decided to run against her former boss in part due to “a lack of trust, a lack of transparency, favoritism” and “a demoralizing internal culture” that has impacted customers.

Fred Petty, who served as tax collector from 1996 to 2000, said he’d like to see Thomas run for state Legislature for his “intelligence and ideas” but endorsed Bobala for her promise to be present in the offices with customers.

Bobala also earned the endorsement of former tax collector Diane Nelson, who recruited Thomas to work as her deputy when she was elected in 2000. When she retired in 2016, Nelson supported Thomas in his election to be her successor.

Nelson said she is now supporting Bobala because of what she considers a decrease in customer service since she left office, with walk-in wait times doubling from 8.8 minutes in 2016 to 16.4 minutes in 2019. Phone wait times fluctuated between 2.7 minutes in 2016, 7.2 minutes in 2018 and 3.9 minutes in 2019.

“Customers are calling me asking for advice right now, because they can’t get through to the tax collector’s office,” Nelson said. “My decision was, do I support my former tax collector assistant or do I support the people of Pinellas County. I chose the people of Pinellas County.”

The Pinellas County tax collector oversees 270 employees and is responsible for collecting more than $2 billion in taxes and fees. It issues vehicle registrations, titles, drivers licences concealed weapons permits and other services. The tax collector serves a four-year term and earns $163,000.

Thomas said wait times have increased only because of his stronger focus on accuracy of transactions and the knowledge and courtesy of staff, elements he found through surveys that customers value most, provided wait times remain under 20 minutes.

He said this strategy resulted in a 98.6 percent customer satisfaction rate in 2019, a score tallied from “tens of thousands of customer comment cards.”

“The focus is having a more engaged and knowledgeable workforce,” Thomas said. “At one point satisfaction was measured by how quickly we wrapped up calls. That’s not what customers wanted. The best way, from my position, is you want a quality call. If it takes a little longer to make sure we completed everything you need done so you don’t need to call back a second or third time, that’s a better outcome.”

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Thomas said he earned the 2020 Governor’s Sterling Award, a statewide award for superior management won twice under his predecessor, only because of his department’s efficiency and customer service.

Thomas has earned the endorsements of a dozen prominent local Republicans, including Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, property appraiser Mike Twitty and Florida Rep. Chris Sprowls, the incoming House speaker.

Thomas has raised $74,985 for his re-election campaign while Bobala has raised $21,384, according to campaign finance reports.

If re-elected, Thomas said he plans to further improve efficiency by increasing the number of customers who renew registration online, via mail or at one of nine kiosks being installed at tax collector’s offices and Publix locations.

For remaining face-to-face transactions, Thomas plans to move to an appointment-only system. This will allow for staff to call or text customers ahead of time to remind them what documents to bring for their particular service, avoiding delays.

Thomas is also developing a driving range at the offices in Clearwater and St. Petersburg that will better facilitate tests.

“I feel I’ve established a track record of success,” Thomas said. “The data is there for both customers and employees who are very happy in the work they’re doing which is why they deliver such great customer satisfaction. That’s empirical, that’s fact.”

Although overall employee satisfaction survey scores were in the 90s for the past few years, Bobala points to negative written responses she says corroborate her concerns about low morale and mismanagement.

The majority of responses in 2020 were positive, like “most supportive environment I’ve encountered in a long time,” according to the survey report. But others point to tension, as in “promotions appear to be a popularity contest.”

Former chief tax auditor Erin Sullivan told the Tampa Bay Times she retired last year, two years early, because of “a toxic work environment” where she did not feel supported by leadership.

“I need to have the organization as a whole heal,” Bobala said. “They basically operate in fear, and I want to correct that.”

Since Thomas was elected, he replaced seven executive leadership positions at least three times each. Thomas said this was about getting “the right people in the right seats” to achieve the best performance. Bobala said the constant change amounted to chaos, with employees “not knowing who to report to.”

As tax collector, Bobala said she would also work to move more driver’s licenses, titles and registration renewals to mobile processing.

She said she plans to create a streamlined system with dedicated staff handling each type of service, so individual employees are not constantly shifting from registration to drivers licenses to concealed weapons permits.

She also wants to increase the number of staff in call centers to expedite transactions.

“My number one priority is to bring back the customer service to where it once was,” Bobala said. “I have been taught at a young age to put others before myself,” Bobala said. “I want people to know their value. I’m a public servant. I’m a collaborator.”

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