North Texas Daily

Tax collector strives, despite negative stigma

Tax collector strives, despite negative stigma

Tax collector strives, despite negative stigma
February 20
00:25 2014

Caitlyn Jones // Staff Writer

Inside the Jim and Mary Horn Government Center, Denton residents stand patiently in a long, narrow room with a row of high desks protected by glass partitions. Three pleasant-sounding women and one pleasant-sounding man call for the next person in line needing assistance. There are a few frustrated shakes of the head, but no one is causing trouble today.

The old man with a wooden cane, the mother with her toddler and the young kid with headphones around his neck all came here for the same thing—to pay their property taxes.

In the heart of the building, accessible only by a key swipe entry system, sits the master of the operation: the tax collector/assessor, Michelle French. The slender brunette sits at her desk, diligently answering emails. Her day started here at 7:30 a.m. and she likely won’t leave for another 12 hours.

“We joke around and say our job is to manage crises,” French said. “Everyday something comes up that you weren’t anticipating and you have to deal with it.”

Job Responsibilities

French is tasked with the job of making residents and businesses pay taxes on their properties. Regardless of the negative stigma of her career, French enjoys helping the public and takes her role in the community very seriously.

“You can’t make 100 percent of the people happy 100 percent of the time,” she said. “You just have to find a way to make the stigma not the greatest factor.”

Before being elected tax collector in the November 2012 election, the mother of two boys, one of whom is a UNT graduate, had already been working in the tax office since 1983, gaining her tax certification in January of 2000.

“As this moved from being a job to a career, there came a point about seven or eight years ago when I thought, ‘Y know, I could really see myself doing this,’” she said.

French serves a dual role as the county tax collector. Half of her job involves assessing and collecting property taxes for residents and businesses in Denton County, including cities, school districts and utility companies on a contract basis. The other half consists of handling vehicle registration and titles for the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In addition, French also handles certain aspects of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

The Ugly Side of Taxes

The busiest time in the office falls during the last week of December, when people want to pay taxes before the end of the calendar year, and the last week of January, when people want to pay taxes before the end of the fiscal year, French said.

During these times, extra security is brought in as the chance of danger increases.

There have only been a handful of dangerous situations in her time at the office, French said, but they do occur nonetheless.

“Usually it’s people who are in a desperate situation that come in and say ‘If you don’t help me right now, I’ve got a gun,’” French said.  “It’s our job to sort of talk them off of the ledge. Of course, if they have a gun, we’ll call the sheriff first and then talk to them.”

Residents may also see the negative side of the tax office when they refuse to pay taxes. Denton County has a 98 percent on-time or late collection rate but there are still properties that remain unpaid.

“There are two reasons why people don’t pay,” French said. “Either they can’t pay or they play chicken with the system and they always lose.”

Interest accrues on the property taxes at 1.5 percent per month, averaging 18 percent per year, UNT real estate professor John Baen said. The interest and taxes can keep building for two to three years.

“Eventually, they’ll sell your property on the courthouse steps,” he said. “But if you do buy one of those properties, be careful because the owner can reclaim the property within two years if they pay the back taxes.”

Community Impact

Denton County tax rates are lower compared to surrounding counties Collin, Tarrant and Dallas, according to the county appraisal districts. Denton charges taxes of .28 percent of the properties’ real market value while the other counties tax .34 percent, .64 percent and .65 percent respectively.

The city of Denton has a combined property tax rate of 2.5 percent that includes county, city and school taxes.

Some local business owners still believe the tax rates are too much.

“They’re pretty excessive,” said Virginia McNeil, owner of McNeil’s Appliances on Denton Square. “It makes it a hardship to run a business.”

McNeil and her husband moved their business to the current location on Oak Street in 1964, when property taxes were much lower.

“I’ve lived a long time and I remember when there wasn’t even a sales tax,” McNeil said. “Now everything’s gone up because of the economy and inflation.”

Sit Down and Stop Thinking

French’s job requires a lot of her, but so do her other positions in the community.

In addition to being the county tax collector/assessor, she is also the secretary treasurer for the Tax Assessor/Collector Association of Texas, the program chair for the Republican Women’s Club and an active member in the Breakfast Kiwanis club.

“My rule is I take off on Sundays so I can recharge and relax before I start the week all over again,” French said. “I try to just sit down and stop thinking.”

The couple goes to church on Sundays and when they return home, French curls up with a book.

Her favorite genres are science fiction and history. She usually reads two or three books at a time. She’s currently reading a book by Bill O’Reilly and The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill.

Breaking the Stigma

At the end of each long day, French wants to serve the people in her county in the best way that she can, despite the negative stigma.

One of the ways she achieves this is by educating people on the role of her job. She speaks to many groups about what tax collectors specifically do and don’t do.

“There’s a lot of confusion between what we do and what the appraisal district does,” she said. “Education is necessary to help the public understand what our role is and also what their role is.”

Baen acknowledges that French and others who share her job have a negative reputation but believes that it’s unwarranted.

“Assessors have power over people and most people don’t like that,” he said. “I don’t think people know about all the exemptions they could get and that assessors will actually help homeowners. It’s all a perception thing.”

French plans on running for re-election in 2016 when her term is up. She says she’ll start campaigning and hosting fundraisers next year.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to serve another four years but we’ll just have to see what happens,” she said.

Feature photo: Michelle French works at the Jim and Mary Horn Government Center. French is a tax collector for Denton. Photo by Dana Pisciottano / Intern Photographer 

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