Stewart was elected to the office in an Aug. 21 runoff with Vicki Beck. But, while politics were “bred” into him, the father of two said he never imagined government would be his career.
“I’ve been [in politics] for 25 years now and not my own politics but with Commissioner [Clarence] Brown and Frank Moore before him, so it’s just bred into me I guess. I never thought I’d honestly work for the county more than a year when I first started working here, and 25 years later, here I am,” he said.
Having served in a government role and on various committees around the county, Stewart said pursuing the position was “seemed to fit.”
“... The truth is, VaLenda had told me she was going to retire and it just stuck in my head,” he said. “... It seemed to be like maybe it was my turn to do something like that. Inevitably, I worked hard and won.”
Born in Tennessee, Stewart has lived in Bartow County since a young age, graduating from Cass High School. Being a native of the area has helped his transition, he said.
“I did customer service for the commissioner’s office for a long, long time, so I pretty much had my finger on the pulse of what’s going on,” Stewart said. “I think that’s been a real asset. I kind of have a good feel for our community, what the needs are and this job it really doesn’t … you don’t prepare for this job. It’s just, right from the first day this is in your face, people are coming up. It’s just like … it’s not like you get a break-in period. ... It’s trial by fire actually.
“Certainly being a native to the area and knowing all the folks, and half the folks that walk in here, it’s definitely got it’s advantages.”
During his campaign, Stewart said initial efforts would be made to update the office hours and to equip the office with the ability to accept credit and debit cards. Those plans are on hold until after House Bill 386 begins March 1.
“It’s going to be quite problematic in the fact that ... people that have a causal sale are going to have to pay ad valorem tax,” Stewart said of the legislation. “That’s going to be a pretty big transition for the office, especially for the tax side.”
With his focus on learning the job, Stewart said he is “just keeping my feet under me and trying not to make bad decisions, doing our payouts on time and just serving the public, mainly.”
One of the new tax commissioner’s biggest assets, he said, is the flexibility afforded him
“I guess there wasn’t a good feel for what we were going to need. So I’m getting a little bit of flexibility on … a computer might be real old so I’m getting a new computer and we’re getting a new computer in back,” Stewart said. “Nothing huge, but letterhead was something we didn’t think about. Everything’s got to have my name on it instead of VaLenda’s now. ...
“Those budget things are the main thing. … I guess one of the freedoms we have is a little bit in the budget right now. Trying to stay in what VaLenda had, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this first year.”
Collections, which began dropping in 2007, will be key moving forward for the department.
“Well, the tax commissioner is, to me — and it’s not because I am the tax commissioner — but it’s the most important role. If we don’t have collections, then the county can’t function,” he said. “The sheriff’s department’s budget is going to be cut, everybody’s going to get cut based on the percentage we collect here. That’s just the bottom line.”
Under former Tax Commissioner Jack Nally, Stewart estimated collections came in at almost 100 percent.
“... When times were real good, [tax collections were at] 99.9 percent. It’s dropped off since then,” he said. “VaLenda had some real good years, but about ’07 when the economy changed, it started dropping down to 98.7. … We’re right around 97 for last year, so far. I mean, we’ll still be collecting for last year, plus penalties, but it’s just a little bit tougher on people.”