Tax Collector Diane Nelson calls herself “beloved”, spends tax dollars spreading the word

Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson approved a tax-dollar funded press release calling herself “beloved”. In announcing her retirement, a press release on March 30th had the following headline and subheadline:

It’s the end of an era

BELOVED PINELLAS COUNTY TAX COLLECTOR, DIANE NELSON, ANNOUNCES RETIREMENT

A public records request shows that Diane Nelson approved this wording. The press release calling herself beloved was sent out using public funds and resources. In approving what turned out to be the final draft, Nelson wrote “it reads very well.”

Susie Blanco, Senior Executive Assistant to Diane Nelson, questioned the used of the word “beloved” in an e-mail at 7:50 A.M. on March 29th. Blanco wrote to Public Affairs Manager Brenna Haggar and said “I wonder if we can find another word”.

However, Haggar didn’t alter the press release and didn’t respond to the e-mail questioning the choice of the word “beloved”. Instead, Haggar sent a final draft to Nelson and Blanco at 5:51 P.M. that same day and Nelson approved it at 6:43 P.M. The press release went out the next day. One can be certain that “recommending oneself” is something Ms. Manners would not recommend….or approve of.

Many internal e-mails on March 30th, the day of the press release, contain statements by Tax Collector staff expressing sadness over Nelson’s departure, or admiration for her. However, no one questioned the use of public funds and public resources to distribute a what best can be described as a hagiography produced using public funds.

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Politicians care most about their reputations, and that’s why we can’t give them a pass when they tell us how wonderful they are. Nelson has been a passive tax collector, and done her constituents a disservice in the process. Some examples:

1/ Although systems exist elsewhere in the world that would allow people to not have to turn in their license plates when they are not driving a vehicle, Nelson has been all talk and no action since the idea was first raised with her in 2009.  She claims to be for it, but then does nothing to advance the cause. Citizens continue having to visit her office much more often than they would have to under a more efficient system.

2/ Nelson’ audit staff failed to spot hundreds of thousands of dollars of  undercollection and underpayment of taxes by Innisbrook resort . A citizen had to place it under their nose for them to find it.

When clear evidence was presented to Nelson’s office that Innisbrook willfully failed to amend their returns upon their discovery of their error, Nelson’s office still didn’t refer the matter for criminal prosecution. “Willfulness” is a key element in showing that the failure to pay was deliberate.

3/ A public records request further showed that Nelson’s office has not referred a single case for criminal prosecution for many years. Think about that: in all that tax collection they do in all of those offices, they want you to think they never found a single case of willful tax evasion. It looks like that what Nelson cared about most was “being liked”.

The person campaigning to be our new tax collector, Charles Thomas, claimed that their agency’s failure to spot any criminal wrongdoing “is actually a credit to our taxpayers. We have found our taxpayers to be cooperative and forthcoming in our dealings with them.” Most are “cooperative and forthcoming”, but some aren’t. Their unwillingness to spot those who aren’t is a sign of a poorly run and mediocre agency.

4/ While playing nice with the big resorts, Nelson nonetheless found time in 2013 to incorrectly assert that a local vacation rental agency owed a five figure amount in back taxes. Nelson based her assertion on a Florida Department of Revenue ruling from 1996.

At no charge, I agreed to help the vacation rental agency with the case. Without much effort, I discovered that the underlying Florida Administrative Code rule cited in the 1996 revenue ruling had changed. Nelson’s office had not bothered to check. In the end, no taxes were due, but I wouldn’t be surprised if her office continued to use that same inapplicable revenue ruling to collect taxes (and penalties….and interest) from other small businesses.

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Charles Thomas, a Republican, is almost certain to be our new tax collector because he has no opponent and isn’t likely to have one. Thomas’ record and past comments suggest you can expect more of the same that you saw under Nelson. Which menas: more inefficient last-century administrative procedures, more of your time time unnecessarily spent going to and waiting “at DMV”, special treatment of large businesses, and harassment of smaller businesses who usually lack the resources to prove the tax collector wrong.

We the taxpayers fund all this mediocrity and corruption. If it was a B-movie, it would get 9% on RottenTomatoes.Com.

— Tom Rask

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