Not only is Pulaski County Treasurer Debra Buckner not going to resign, as a (formerly) delinquent taxpayer recently demanded, she says rather convincingly that she barely notices such comments. That’s because she hears far more in the way of approval.
Tax delinquents, newspaper columnists, and anti-government types may complain about her tax-collection procedures, Buckner said in an interview, but “The people who get this money applaud — the public schools, the library, the hospitals, the city and county governments.” So do almost all of the common citizens she hears from after she’s made a delinquent come across in public. “I hear constantly, ‘If I pay, everybody should have to pay.’ At Wal-Mart, at church, I hear that all the time.”
Comments to the Arkansas Times blog were mostly along the same line, after Buckner’s latest well-publicized confrontation with a business owner who was behind on her taxes.
Generally, the county judge and the sheriff are the only county officials most people pay attention to. But every so often, Treasurer Buckner barges onto page one and into the 6 p.m. newscast. That happens when she personally goes to a delinquent taxpayer’s business, accompanied by the media she’s invited, and demands that the offender pay up. The offender does, usually with an embarrassed statement that it was all just a mistake. But the owner of Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro, Darla Huie, exchanged sharp words with Buckner before writing checks to Saline County, where the restaurant was formerly located, and Pulaski County. Later Huie issued a statement calling for the resignation of Buckner and Saline County Collector Joy Ballard, who accompanied Buckner to the restaurant. (In some counties, the offices of collector and treasurer are separate. In Pulaski County, they’re combined.) Huie said in her written statement, “The women (Ballard and Buckner) conspired to contact the media, using misleading press release statements to mobilize both electronic and print media outlets, admittedly to embarrass and humiliate us, personally and professionally, as an ‘example’ to others.”
Buckner cheerfully admits that she often invites the media to accompany her on “site visits” to businesses to collect delinquent taxes. As far as she knows, she started this practice in Arkansas, and “The media visits have become something of a phenomenon. … I think collecting taxes is harder in the smaller counties. They go to church with these people.”
“I have a lack of compassion for people who evade taxes because they think they can get away with it, for blatant and repeat offenders,” Buckner said.
The collection of delinquent business taxes is a six-step procedure, and the procedure covers a year, Buckner said. It starts with a “phone-call blitz” from the collector’s office to the delinquent taxpayer. Then there’s a letter from the county attorney, the sheriff serves a writ, Buckner makes a site visit, postcards are sent to everybody who’s delinquent on business taxes. Finally, Step 6 is the seizure and sale of the business’s assets. “We can’t padlock the door, but we can sell everything they own,” Buckner said. (Business taxes are paid on assessed assets, that is, inventory and everything else it takes to operate the business. Real-property taxes are a separate matter with a separate procedure.)
Nobody’s ever taken a swing at Buckner, but at least two people from the collector’s office go on every site visit, just in case. “I never go by myself, or let one of my staff go by themselves.” For Step 6, a deputy sheriff would be enlisted to keep the peace.
But Buckner has never actually presided over a sale. All the delinquents either pay up or go out of business before then, she said. When they go out of business, the county never gets its money. Buckner said that some of the people who criticized the Dizzy’s visit said she shouldn’t have been going after a $900 debt when there were people on the county delinquent list who owed much more, a couple of them in six figures. But all of those delinquents are out of business, Buckner said, collection-proof. The debts that she can actually collect are all down around the Dizzy’s range.
Incidentally, “Vermillion Water Grill was in that location before Dizzy’s,” Buckner said. “They owed $4,180, but they’re out of business. I can’t collect. I liked Vermillion. That has not been a good site for us.”
Buckner, 60, has been in office 10 and a half years. She expects she has a few terms left, although that could change. She was 49, a banker who’d never run for office, “not even the student council,” when she heard that Treasurer Pat Tedford would not seek re-election in 2000. She decided to give it a try. She hasn’t had an opponent since that first election, but she thinks that kind of goes with the territory. The county policy makers, the sheriff and county judge, are the ones who draw opponents.
It was while she was working at the old Worthen Bank that she met Debbye Wolter, who is now her chief deputy. One difference between being a private banker and a county tax collector, Buckner said, is that as a banker, she could work out a payment plan with debtors — say, $100 this month and $100 next month. As a collector, she can accept one full year’s payment, but nothing less.
The collector serves a two-year term and there’s no limit on how many terms she can serve. Her salary is $80,706.
Buckner’s office collected $380,921,000 in taxes last year, including $49,005,000 in business taxes. She sends out 386,000 tax bills a year. “I don’t need publicity,” she said. “My name is in everybody’s mail box.”