Doug Belden, Hillsborough County’s elected tax collector, credits his grandfather for instilling a passion for politics into him. He has used this passion and his experience in the private sector to transform the Tax Collector’s Office into “the most modern and efficient agency in the state of Florida.”
Belden sat down with The Tampa Tribune to talk about winning the Sterling Award for performance excellence, the influences of his grandfather, his business experience and the importance of establishing community.
Tribune: How did you go about trying to make the Tax Collector’s Office the “most modern and efficient agency?”
Belden: First of all, the basic principle that I believe in is efficiency is the foundation for survival, and effectiveness is the foundation for success. People can have many good intentions. However, success is based on measurable outcomes and results, bottom line. To be efficient, we strive to be better, faster and cheaper, which is the way government should run. You have to figure out how to do more with less without compromising legal compliance or fiscal responsibility.
Tribune: How did you go about implementing those beliefs on how government should run in your job?
Belden: As you know, we were winners of the Sterling Award. The reason I applied for that wasn’t because of the award; it was about striving for better business results and implementing structured business processes that are common in the private sector but not the norm in government. Things like strategic planning, which is a very important process of improvement. Benchmarking results — you have to be able to measure things. For example, if something isn’t in the green, I want to know why it isn’t in the green.
Another example is my budget process. When the Department of Revenue approves our budget, I prioritize to all my directors who serve directly to me that the No. 1 priority would absolutely have to be funded because it’s a necessity, like a computer or a particular software related to the state. Number two, we do a cost-benefit analysis on anything that’s over $5,000, and the payback must be three years or less. If not, I won’t approve it. I’m also a very detailed line-item budget person. I’ve never been denied a single budget item by the Department of Revenue for the last 15 years because everything that I ask for funding-wise is justified in great detail. For example, I request the number of full-time employees that I need. I’ve got to show the number of transactions they’ve performed, and justify why I need that full-time employee. I have a tremendous relationship with the Department of Revenue for that reason. …
When you apply for the Sterling award, which is around a three-year process, you have to have every employee buy into that and understand what our vision and mission statement is, and what’s expected of their job. Based on our business processes, we were a recipient of this award. Then, two years later, we won the performance and sustainability award, which shows that you’re maintaining what you did two years prior. We did an employee survey: 94 percent responded, and 97 percent of those who responded enjoy working here, which makes me feel proud.
Tribune: How do you compare working in the private sector to the public sector?
Belden: Being in the private sector, in my particular case, was very risky. I was fortunate to have Jim Walter’s son as a business partner. But when I do things on my own and I have to borrow millions of dollars from the bank, and with the hard way I grew up, that prevents you from going out and buying a $1,500 fax machine. You buy what gets you by. If you make a mistake on your budget, it could just implode and wind up a catastrophe, and then all of a sudden you can’t pay the bank back and you ruin your credit. I had to be extremely detailed and conservative when looking at projects. On the other hand, in government, you can make more mistakes and continue to operate in government. All I’m interested in doing is making sure we cover our operational costs, which we do.
We collect fees, and we use that to fund our budget. Whatever we don’t use, we return the excess funds to the board of County Commissioners. I’ve returned as much as $21 million. The importance of being able to give back money is to demonstrate you’re financially responsible, instead of just using it to buy things. We’ve always given back.
Leaders look at things before they become a crisis. I knew back in 2010 that the state was going to make us take over driver’s licenses. I made plans to expand the Plant City branch knowing I have a huge increase in traffic coming from the state. Our parameters are very tough. We have to have an excessive amount of parking, about 275 to 300 spaces because of the amount of traffic coming in and out of our offices. But we learn; we did a study with USF, and we’re always looking for ways to make improvements. We looked at the way customers flow in order to save time, lunching hours, etc. We always work with the private sector and academia. It’s very important, in my opinion, in order to have a successful community.
Tribune: Can you discuss the influence of your grandfather?
Belden: My grandfather [Dr. Ed Flynn, a prominent oral surgeon] taught me many valuable lessons that I’ve practiced my entire adult life. He taught me to help those who were less fortunate regardless of their socio-economic level or ethnicity. He taught me how to get along with people from all walks of life and bringing them together to work as a team with the goal of building a better community for the next generation. I love to interact with people. There’s nothing I enjoy more than bringing people together for the sake of the community and helping less fortunate people out. That means a great deal to me. I don’t believe in net worth; I believe in self-worth. I live very frugal. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He’s the one who introduced me to politics when I was 15 years old, and he took me out to West Tampa.
What this resulted in is when I run for election, it’s important to me that I have a huge diversity of supporters politically, ethnically, from the unions, etc. When you look at my campaign contributions, they’re from across the board, and that makes me feel good.
Tribune: Do you plan to run again?
Belden: Yes, I’m going to run again in 2016.
Tribune: What do you plan to do after you retire from office?
Belden: I’ll be focused on helping organizations and charities that involve under-privileged children and continuing to try to find ways to bring people together. Hopefully, one day I’ll be spending time with my son, my No. 1 priority, and his family. Maybe I’ll travel to other parts of the world and learn about other cultures. Maybe I’ll try, to some extent, to relax.
I will tell you one thing: Being a type A-plus personality and being very impatient, I will not be sitting on a bass boat waiting for fish to bite.
As far as public life, I’ve been blessed to have really exceptional employees. They are the ones who stand out to the customers. Our office probably interacts with the public more than any other office. I wasn’t a recipient of the Sterling award; they made it happen.
Emerson Brito is a student intern in The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department. He can be reached at 813-259-8107.