Santiago and Roberts

Two candidates are slugging it out in the race to be Volusia County’s tax collector, a new elected position that will oversee the momentous task of transitioning revenue collection from the state and the Volusia County Finance Department into a new office.

Will Roberts, a seven-year employee of the county tax department, faces David Santiago, currently the representative for District 27 in the Florida House, who has served the maximum allowed consecutive terms in that role.

The 2018 passage of Amendment 10 made Volusia County’s sheriff, elections supervisor and property appraiser — now Volusia County government officers — elected constitutional officers, and created the position of tax collector.

As constitutional officers, the officials will be able to set their own budgets, without approval from the County Council.

The race is partisan. Both candidates are Republicans, and both say they are fiscally conservative, and focused on not wasting taxpayer money. But while the goal is similar — a successful creation of a one-stop shopping center for all your tax needs — the two candidates offer fundamentally different versions of how it will occur, and why they are the right ones to see it through.

The election is technically a primary, which would usually be closed to non-Republicans, but since no non-Republicans filed for the office to be general-election opposition, the primary is open to all Volusia County voters.

The two men have been endorsed by people on opposing sides of the Amendment 10 fight.

Roberts, a tax professional overseeing property taxes in the county’s financial revenue department, has been endorsed by both of the parties who, along with Volusia County, filed suit to stop Amendment 10 — Dr. T. Wayne Bailey and Dr. P.T. Fleuchaus.

Santiago, in contrast, has been endorsed by vocal Amendment 10 defender Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood. Chitwood had railed against the county’s efforts to stop the amendment, naming six of the council members, along with the county attorney, Dan Eckert, “Scumbags of the Week” in December 2018.

“We need a professional, we need someone who is the right fit. We need somebody that can make this a smooth, effective transition, because a whole lot is riding on it,” Roberts told The Beacon. “My opponent has zero experience, no qualifications, and is obviously a career politician who has termed out and is looking for another paycheck.”

“It’s going to take leadership experience to make a huge state agency and county agency successfully merged. We need someone with the unique skills of building something like this, and leadership experience to do it,” Santiago said. “You can’t put a government bureaucrat who has never led or managed, or started a business, in charge of a multimillion-dollar operation, and that’s my opponent.”

Who's funding the races?

Roberts and Santiago have butted heads over Santiago’s campaign donations, and Roberts’ experience as a leader.

“Look at our campaign finance reports, to understand how someone would run the tax collector's office,” Roberts said. “Most of his donations are from his political buddies and special interest groups outside of the county … Special interests have an interest doing business with the tax collector's office — it doesn’t sound like he is interested in serving Volusia.”

In contrast, Roberts said, his donations have largely been from local residents, and he has turned down donations from groups that could have an interest in influencing the office. He and his team collected 3,800 signatures, Roberts said, to avoid paying the $9,000 filing fee to get his name on the ballot.

“The guy who doesn’t raise real money always complains about the other. That’s always what happens, because he doesn’t get the support,” Santiago replied.

In past years, Santiago said, his campaigns have always successfully gotten the support of Volusians. This year, however, he didn’t want to burden residents in the middle of a global pandemic.

“I’ve been a servant in Volusia County for a long time on many levels,” Santiago said. “I decided not to call my personal supporters here during the pandemic … we made a choice not to burden our local supporters.”

“I’m an open book — my support has never indicated that I am beholden to other interests,” Santiago said. “I fight for Volusia regardless of who donates.”

Who's qualified?

Roberts has never led or managed anyone, Santiago said, and has no experience with tag and title taxes, concealed weapon taxes, or birth certificate taxes — all taxes that are currently managed by the state, but which the new Tax Collector’s Office will have the option to pick up.

Both candidates are set on picking up those services from the state, in order to streamline the process for Volusians, but are bitterly divided on who is qualified to do so.

“I think Will Roberts is lying to Volusians by overstating his experience,” Santiago said. “You know the guy who sends the threatening letters about paying your property taxes? That’s him.”

In contrast, Santiago said, he has the leadership ability that counts. “I’ve started and sold two small businesses, run the entire operation of and managed a call center with 315 employees … I started a military finance department within J.P Morgan, dedicated for veterans financial services,” Santiago said. “I’ve managed managers, and that is what the Tax Collector will do.”

“I can create a team to merge two major government entities,” Santiago said, referring to taking on the state’s current tax collection. “My public service ensures my relationships with state agencies will help smooth service … go see Will Roberts — he knows where to put your bill in a computer.”

Roberts is currently a tax administrator in the property-tax division of the Volusia County Finance Department, where two employees directly answer to him and supervise up to six employees at any given time, he said.

“I have supervised people, in the U.S. Air Force, in corrections — in corrections, that’s 12 hours a day, 150 inmates over a 12 hour shift. I don’t see how he doesn’t equate that to supervising people,” Roberts said. “I can be compassionate and empathetic with government employees because I am a government employee. He doesn’t have any experience in that.”

A moving job

There are major logistical and operational challenges to moving an entire section of the county’s finance department into a new, separate agency, which will also have the option of picking up tax management currently run by the state, like tag and title taxes, concealed weapon taxes, and birth certificate taxes.

Contracts currently signed with the county with private vendors will have to be renegotiated, and county employees currently in the tax division of the finance department will be transferred.

In a resolution passed July 21, the county plans to continue some administrative services through the transition, including facilities management, payroll, and information technology.

Roberts argues that his experience in the county will help the process be smooth.

“The county has been providing those services for 50-plus years. I know what level of expectation to have — I know what to expect from IT and accounting services from the county, and how much you should complain,” Roberts said. “I will work with the county as much as possible, as they have been providing those services for many many years, to provide for a smooth transition.”

“My vision is a service-oriented operation, with its constituent and fiscal responsibility always at hand. Very very different from what we currently have,” Santiago said. “We want to extremely enhance the services, unlike what they have seen over 50 years, while being fiscally conservative.”

Santiago argues his experience in the Florida House of Representatives will help smooth a merger between state and county agencies.

“My public service ensures my relationships with state agencies will help smooth service,” he said, estimating that the revenue from taking over driver’s license taxes to be between $6 million and $7 million.

Santiago is putting together a transition team, he said, to evaluate whether there are enough employees, or whether the office will be overstaffed, and how best to streamline service to meet his vision.

“We will meet with all the employees to make sure they understand that vision and accept that vision — probably an overwhelming majority will,” Santiago said. “We have to have people in the right position.”

If Santiago wins, he said, Roberts, a current county employee, will be evaluated like any other.

“The employees who would come over to the tax collector’s office from the county position — my plan is to stay the course, offer the same retirement, keep most of the same policies regarding leave, same benefits,” Roberts said. “I don’t want employees to feel like they are being left out, I want to make sure they feel like they are going to a good place.”

“At the same time, the tourist development tax is way down. A lot of people depend on that money, there are advertising authorities that depend on that. There are a lot of tough decisions to make,” Roberts said.

Still, Santiago says Roberts isn’t up to the task of making tough administrative decisions.

“Managing, setting a budget, and hiring and firing — Will Roberts has never done any of that,” Santiago said.

Roberts pushed back at that sentiment.

“With COVID-19 — there is gonna be a lot of budget cuts, and we need someone who knows how to do more with less, which I definitely do,” Roberts said. “It’s what I have learned in my military career and my corrections career and revenue career — how to do more with less, is always what I have had to work with.”

Still, Santiago expressed confidence in himself as the right person to lead the office.

“I am very optimistic and confident about what will happen after we take over this office and improve,” Santiago said.

Roberts is also optimistic about being able to provide more services, and is excited to educate people about taxes.

“The Tax Collector will take on property taxes, vehicle tag and title services, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, concealed weapon permits, and hunting and fishing licenses,” Roberts said. “For the first time in 50 years, the voters will get to choose the person to lead and organize this team.”

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