Call volume up 233% for Tax Collector’s Office as staff deals with challenges of COVID-19

Staff has been creative in finding ways to continue to serve customers, Tax Collector Ford-Coates tells commissioners

Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates responds to a commissioner on July 1. News Leader image

During her Fiscal Year 2021 budget presentation to the County Commission this week, Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates focused on the many changes with which her staff has to contend as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

For example, Ford-Coates reported on July 1, while her staff members normally would serve about 1,400 people in person each day, they are helping approximately 350 instead, as people who have to conduct business in the office must make appointments.

Further, she said, instead of processing 400 online payments every day, that figure has risen to 700, a 75% increase.

The biggest uptick has been in phone calls, Ford-Coates noted. Instead of answering about 600 a day, her staff members are dealing with approximately 2,000, a 233% hike.

Finally, the amount of mail her staff handles on a daily basis has risen from 500 pieces to 700, for a 40% increase.

Her office processes about 1 million transactions annually, Ford-Coates explained, as staff collects more than $1 billion.

Unlike other county constitutional officers, she pointed out, she finances the Tax Collector’s Office operations through fees charged for its services. The latest annual total is about $21 million, she noted.

At the Sept. 30 end of this fiscal year, Ford-Coates said, she anticipates turning over $12.5 million to the county, reflecting income over expenses. As she noted, that is what the traditional business world would refer to as “profit.”

“So only $1.5 million of my budget was for collecting property taxes,” she told the commissioners. That money did come out of the county’s General Fund,” she said.

The General Fund comprises property tax revenue and other types of revenue, including gas tax funds. Office of Financial Management staff describes it as the most constrained county fund, as it covers operations of various county departments, as well as those of other constitutional officers, such as the sheriff.

Under Florida law, Ford-Coates pointed out, she has to submit her budget to the state Department of Revenue by Aug. 1.

This is the proposed Tax Collector’s Office budget for the 2021 fiscal year and projections through FY 2025. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As she figuratively dove into the changes in her office’s work as a result of the pandemic, Ford-Coates said, “There’s been a lot of creativity in meeting these challenges. … I especially want to compliment my amazing staff and thank your staff.”

County staff members helped set up work stations for employees who could handle their responsibilities from home, she continued, and they also assisted with implementing social distancing protocols in her office, she said, for the staff members who needed to be present to assist customers. Ford-Coates especially praised the county’s Information Technology employees, calling them “wonderful.”

Road test and Tourist Development Tax updates

“Another challenge,” she continued on July 1, “was how to give a road test to a new driver,” given the need for social distancing, which — she emphasized — is not possible in the front seats of a vehicle.

She and her staff were able to convince representatives of the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles to allow those tests to be conducted with the student driver, accompanied by a licensed adult in the passenger seat, holding a cellphone to receive directions from an observer on her staff. That observer follows the student driver on the closed course at the Mid-County Tax Collector’s Office on Sawyer Loop Road in Sarasota, Ford-Coates added.

Deputy Tax Collector Rana Moye explained to The Sarasota News Leader during a telephone interview that the staff member asks the adult accompanying the student driver to use the speaker phone feature so the student driver can follow the staff member’s commands. “They’re able to maneuver on the course,” she said of the two vehicles.

An aerial view shows the Mid-County Tax Collector’s Office when it was still under construction on Sawyer Loop Road in June 2018. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moye added that she has taken on the responsibility of contacting many of the drivers who were preparing to take their tests when the pandemic struck, necessitating the closure of county offices. She has been helping them make their appointments, Moye said, and advising them to practice the maneuvers they likely will have to execute. She also makes it clear to them, she noted, “We want you to pass.”

Ford-Coates told the commissioners she did have concerns at the outset about the expense of gas for an observer’s vehicle. As a result, Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the county’s General Services Department, was able to secure a hybrid electric car for the observer to use, Ford-Coates noted. “So we’re not incurring a great deal of additional costs.”

She was very appreciative, she added, of staff’s assistance with that initiative, as well.

“We can’t just stop serving [the public],” she told the commissioners. “We can’t just top collecting the funds you all need to run the county.”

Among other details of her presentation, Ford-Coates pointed out that her office’s cost per capita “continues to be significantly lower than all the other tax collectors’ [expenses] on the west coast of Florida, and second-lowest per capita in the state.”

Her budget for the 2021 fiscal year, she said, reflects “a modest increase of 2.7%.”

And in a preview of May Tourist Development Tax (TDT) collections, Ford-Coates added that the preliminary figures show the total for May, compared to the amount collected in May 2019, is down only about $858,000. “That’s the least amount down we’ve had since the March collections.”

In response to that comment, Commissioner Nancy Detert said, “That’s what I hear from local business people. … They say, ‘We’re losing less …”

For April, the TDT revenue decrease year-over-year was almost $2 million, Ford-Coates pointed out. That marked a drop of about 88%, compared to the amount collected in April 2019.

This is the April report on Tourist Development Tax revenue in the county, which was released in early June. Image courtesy Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates

The 5% Tourist Development Tax (TDT0 is charged on all rentals of accommodations for six months or less time. The funds pay for a variety of county initiatives, including beach maintenance and the upkeep of Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota — where the Baltimore Orioles conduct Spring Training — and the CoolToday Park in North Port, where the Atlanta Braves train.

Detert also told Ford-Coates, “I’ve never heard a complaint about your office. … I have really never seen an office like yours that’s so impressive with your employees.”

“I have an amazing staff,” Ford-Coates replied. “They love to help people.”

One good aspect of the televising of the commission meetings, Detert continued, is the opportunity that affords the public to see their constitutional officers. For example, Detert said, “They get to meet the famous Barbara Ford-Coates.”

Detert continued, “Our constitutional officers are really exemplary. We should be proud of every one of you.”
“We do get complaints,” Ford-Coates told her, “and every complaint is an opportunity to improve what we do.”

Other COIVD-19 adaptations

When Chair Michael Moran asked whether any board member had a question for Ford-Coates, Commissioner Christian Ziegler first asked about Ford-Coates’ expectation for resuming normal office operations, given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Until we see a clear flattening of the curve,” Ford-Coates said, “I think we will continue under the current process.”
With appointments at the Mid-County Office, she continued, staff asks that people call to announce their arrival. Then, when the staff person is ready to assist the customer, Ford-Coates said, the customer is allowed to come inside.

Commissioner Nancy Detert. File photo

“And everybody’s wearing masks.”

She noted that the goal is to protect the public and her employees.

On July 6, she continued, her main office in the Terrace Building in downtown Sarasota will open for appointments.

Further, she talked of her disappointment about having to delay so many driving tests, especially for young people eligible to get their licenses.

Yet, she added, “The only trick has been dealing with the amount of phone calls.”

On Monday of this week, Ford-Coates pointed out, “There were some significant problems with the [county] phone systems.”

Typically, after the weekend, Monday is very busy, she indicated, characterizing it as “the worst day to call the office.”
She also noted, “Normally, we’re at a low number” for calls not answered within 2 minutes. Approximately 98% to 99% of callers receive help during that window, she said. “But, fortunately, our customers have been very understanding.”

Chair Moran commended her on the high rate of answers within 2 minutes, adding that that “is just extraordinary.”

Concealed weapons permits

Commissioner Ziegler also asked Ford-Coates about the potential for the Sarasota County Tax Collector’s Office to begin handling concealed weapons permits, as allowed by the state.

“We’ve been in the process of setting that up,” she replied. Space was set aside in the Mid-County Office for that work, she noted. “It just hasn’t happened yet.”

When Ziegler asked whether the commissioners could do anything to speed up the start of that service, she told him, “We need to get rid of COVID-19. That’s what slowed us down.”
Ziegler noted that his district, District 2, is in the northern part of the county, so he hears complaints from constituents who have to drive to Manatee County or Charlotte County to get the permits. “A lot of people ask me about this.”

The service, Ford-Coates replied, “probably would have been up and running” if the pandemic had not begun.