A Houston Chronicle story Friday reported Sumners’ staff is working overtime to process a backlog of auto registrations so motorists are not ticketed for driving with expired decals. [Challenger Mike] Sullivan said current and former tax office workers have reached out to share concerns with its operations.
[Incumbent Don] Sumners blamed the backlog on a communication breakdown among staff and county budget cuts. Sumners fired seven managers after taking office, in part to save money, and laid off another 25 clerks after budget cuts came down a year ago.
“In effect, I could take their place because of the experience that I had and the education that I had,” Sumners said. “When asked about what he would do since he doesn’t have the experience, (Sullivan’s) response was, ‘I’d hire people that do.’ That’d be great if there was money in the budget.”
Sullivan said Sumners’ removal of those seven managers was not a benefit to taxpayers because it took out institutional knowledge that could have improved the office’s operations.
“The budget cut that has been imposed on the tax office now is not significant enough to justify the long lines that are there. I’ve worked at City Hall now for five years with decreasing budgets and more demand on services. We have done more with less,” Sullivan said. “After (former tax assessor) Paul (Bettencourt) left the office, there’s been a continual decline and degradation in service, and it’s got to be turned around.”
When you cut funding for a government service, you are arguing – implicitly or explicitly – one of two things: Either the same level of service can be provided with less funding, or the service cutbacks that will be necessitated are good things in and of themselves. By cutting staff, including all those managers whose work Sumners said he could do himself, Sumners is making the former argument. Clearly, however, it is not the case that the service is being provided at the same level as it had been. I continue to be fascinated by the extent to which Sumners is blaming other factors for this drop in service – a three percent increase in new car sales and title transactions (I base that calculation on the numbers cited by Sumners in the original Chron story; budget cuts that led to the staff reductions that Sumners himself implemented; “communications breakdowns”, whatever that means – but I have not seen in either of these stories a statement from him that he owns the problem and is working to fix it. I have a low opinion of Sumners so I can’t say I’m surprised at any of this, but it’s always nice to have one’s opinions validated by the facts.
Sullivan, for his part, lists on his Issues tab a desire to keep all 15 branch offices open and to “reduce long lines at branch offices”. One presumes that would require more staff, which in turn means more money for the Tax Assessor’s office. It’s not clear how he plans to accomplish that, though he does also say that he wants to “embrace new technology to improve services for constituents (i.e., kiosks that accept payments so people do not have to stand in line to make payments; use electronic delivery for tax bills to those who want them as opposed to mailing out physical tax bills)”. That’s all laudable and I’d support it, but it too will cost money up front. Again I wonder what Commissioners Court thinks of all this, since they are both the implicit target of Sumners’ whining about budget cuts as well as the source of any funding Sullivan would request to fix these problems. Sheriff Adrian Garcia eventually convinced the Court to let him hire more deputies to help reduce the amount he had to spend on overtime, so it can be done. We just don’t know yet what their default position is.
Of course, if we really want a change at this position, it’s not the primary that matters but the November election and the candidacy of Ann Harris Bennett, who was one of the Democrats’ top votegetters as the County Clerk candidate in the 2010 debacle. Bennett is certainly qualified for the job, and while she’s not getting much attention now as she’s unopposed for the nomination, she’s one of the most important Democrats on the Harris County ballot this year. I guarantee you, we’ll have far fewer problems with voter registration if Bennett wins this fall. I feel pretty certain that if she can handle that – and she can – she can do a better job with auto registrations as well.