Bills would let counties object to tax collectors spending after Greenberg debacle

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In a way to prevent a tax collector from misspending public money as Joel Greenberg was accused of doing, state Sen. Jason Brodeur and state Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil filed companion bills that would give county commissions more input into the annual budgets of the Tax Collector’s Office.

“Right now, we really don’t have any oversight. It’s the Department of Revenue in Tallahassee,” said Seminole Commissioner Jay Zembower regarding the office’s budget. “And yet our tax collector is not elected by anyone except by the constituents of Seminole County.”

Under the similar bills, Tax Collector’s offices in Florida’s 67 counties would have to submit their annual fiscal budgets to the state DOR and their county commissions by June 1, two months earlier than currently. Commissioners would then have 30 days to review the Tax Collector’s budget and provide comments and objections to state officials.

Officials with the DOR would then be required to consider the county’s feedback and send back written comments before approving or rejecting the Tax Collector’s Office budget.

“This way, at least we will have multiple sets of eyes [looking at the budget] and prevent another scandal from happening,” said Goff-Marcil, D-Maitland.

Brodeur, R-Sanford, did not return a call for comment. His aide said he was tied up in legislative hearings since the state Legislature began meeting on Monday.

Under the current method, tax collectors — who are elected countywide — are required to submit their offices’ annual budgets to the DOR by Aug. 1. The DOR then either approves or rejects a Tax Collector Office’s budget by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1 without being required to receive any comments from county officials.

However, budgets for the Sheriff’s, Clerk of Courts and Supervisor of Elections offices are approved by county commissions.

“I’m very appreciative of their efforts,” County Attorney Bryant Applegate said about Brodeur and Goff-Marcil. “I would hope our Legislature would see the need to correct a problem that could arise again, not only in this county but in any other county. ... I would like to hear from any state legislator at any level: Tell me why you think this is a bad idea?”

But current Seminole Tax Collector J.R. Kroll said he has mixed feelings about the proposed law. The DOR could still approve a Tax Collector’s Office budget regardless of a county’s comments.

Kroll said the county commission — or anyone from the public — can look at his office’s budget and spending at any time. In fact, his staff publishes the office’s annual budget along with quarterly expenditures every three months on his website.

“To me, that’s a better solution,” Kroll said. “I already have people watching and counting every dollar I spend. And I knew that I was going to have people watching me like a hawk when I took office. And I’m OK with that.”

Still, county officials said the proposed legislation would at least put on record any objections raised by a county commission with the state agency that approves the Tax Collector’s Office spending plan.

“We’re the folks here locally, and we can tell Tallahassee that this is what we’re seeing and that we have concerns,” Zembower said. “It would give [the DOR] a more local perspective. ... Because when you’re sitting in Tallahassee, you don’t have the historical knowledge of what the Tax Collector’s Office has been doing and where they are spending money.”

Tax Collector’s Office budgets were approved by county commissions in Florida until about the late 1970s when that authority was turned over to the state.

Representatives from the Florida Association of Tax Collectors did not return calls for comment on the proposed legislation.

During his time as tax collector from January 2017 to June 2020, Greenberg doled out millions in public dollars on vague consulting contracts and salaries to friends and associates for little or no work, embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy himself cryptocurrency and used an office credit card to buy sports memorabilia, according to federal investigators and county auditors.

A county audit completed in November, five months after Greenberg was first arrested and resigned, found that he had charged about $350,000 for “unaccounted purchases” on the county’s American Express card during his time in office.

During his tenure, Greenberg often clashed with commissioners on his office’s budgets and his spending. But county officials admitted at the time they had no authority to reject Greenberg’s budgets.

The DOR did revise some line items on Greenberg’s budgets. But the state agency never rejected any of his budgets in their entirety.

“This will provide accountability and transparency in the Tax Collector’s Office,” said Commissioner Lee Constantine about the bills. “And we’re not trying to get oversight or control [of the Tax Collector’s Office]. That’s not what these bills are intended to do. It’s simply to get more transparency and an opportunity to see if something is wrong and to avoid potential corruption.”