Give Florida's counties more say over how tax collectors spend - South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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Another Joel Greenberg lesson: Give counties authority over tax collector spending | Editorial

Seminole County was among those who kept trying to warn state officials about Joel Greenberg's outlandish spending habits, but the state was reluctant to act.

[Ed. note: This editorial regarding disgraced, corrupt Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg originally published in the Orlando Sentinel, but it’s something for Broward County to consider as we will have an elected Broward County tax collector beginning with the 2024 election.]

While Joel Greenberg was looting taxpayer money throughout his tenure as tax collector, just one government entity acted like it cared: the Seminole County Commission.

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The county — along with private citizens — tried to blow the whistle on Greenberg time and again as he hired his best buds, who often did no work, and bestowed millions in contracts, which often resulted in no product.

But unlike some other constitutional offices, counties have no authority over the tax collector’s budget; the state Department of Revenue does.

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That needs to change. The county, which was paying attention to Greenberg, ought to have more say over the tax collector’s budget than the Revenue Department, which was asleep at the switch.

We should have learned a lot from Greenberg’s disastrous time in office. And one lesson is that a bureaucracy based nearly 300 miles away in Tallahassee wasn’t much good at keeping watch over the Seminole County tax collector.

This government function deserves scrutiny that’s closer to home, though we’re not sure the idea being floated in Seminole — a charter referendum to provide such scrutiny — is the best option to go about it.

We’d rather see Florida law changed to give counties across the state more authority over the way local tax collectors spend the public’s money.

This might all seem like a tedious, bureaucratic debate until you consider the breathtaking audacity of Greenberg’s crimes, and the lack of interest on the part of state budget watchdogs (not to mention state law enforcement).

An audit commissioned by the county uncovered about $384,000 in questionable spending of public money, including thousands on sports memorabilia that included an autographed photo of Michael Jordan. The audit also found that one of the pals Greenberg hired used a tax collector-issued credit card to buy “antiques, sporting goods, knives, batteries and hardware,” according to a recent Sentinel report.

Greenberg also handed out contracts to politically connected Republicans like state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, former Seminole Supervisor of Elections Michael Ertel and Longwood City Commissioner Matt Morgan, who ran for the County Commission last year.

Complaints of spending irregularities were forwarded to the Department of Revenue several times during Greenberg’s tenure, but it’s unclear if the agency ever did anything about them. In one instance, the DOR said a complaint might be a criminal matter, and it had no authority to investigate crimes.

The DOR did act against Greenberg a couple of times — once in 2017 to cut his bloated budget and the other time to deny one of his schemes to sell off branch offices and use the money to buy up distressed shopping centers.

In both of those instances, however, the DOR acted after Seminole County prodded them to do something about Greenberg’s spending. To stop Greenberg from selling off branch offices, a county attorney was forced to drive to Tallahassee because the DOR wouldn’t respond to the county’s phone calls.

Greenberg’s replacement as tax collector, J.R. Kroll, recently told a Sentinel reporter, “The solution is to insure we elect honest stewards of the county funds.”

That’s part of the solution, obviously. The other part is to have financial watchdogs we can count on to make sure the people who get elected are, in fact, honest stewards. And those watchdogs need to be accountable to local voters, like county commissioners are, not unaccountable state bureaucrats.

It’s human nature for politicians to resist more oversight. That seems particularly true sometimes of Florida’s constitutional officers, who are well paid and are generally a lock to remain in office unless they mess things up in a significant way.

Too bad. A county’s residents deserve good government, even if it hurts an elected official’s feelings.

Kroll is correct in saying that Seminole’s idea of a charter amendment to provide more local oversight of the tax collector’s office isn’t the best solution.

The better answer is a statewide law that shifts budget oversight from the Revenue Department to each county. But hey, we are fully aware that the mood in Tallahassee these days is toward less local control, not more.

Sentinel reporters couldn’t even get the state legislators who represent Seminole — Sen. Jason Brodeur and Reps. David Smith and Scott Plakon — to respond to questions about whether they’d support a law giving counties more authority over tax collectors’ budgets.

If a change in the law isn’t in the cards, then Seminole would be better off to try a charter amendment of its own to help protect the county from getting Greenberged again.

Better that than crossing fingers and hoping the state will do a better job next time.

Editorials are the opinion of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board and are written by one of our members or a designee. The editorial board consists of Opinion Editor Mike Lafferty, Jennifer A. Marcial Ocasio, Jay Reddick and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Send emails to insight@orlandosentinel.com.

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