April 2019

Maria Walls, CPA, Beaufort County Treasurer: Forward-thinking leader, responsible steward

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

As popularity contests go, the local tax collector is not likely to be on your “best friends” list—unless you happen to know Maria Walls, Beaufort County Treasurer. You may have voted for her in 2014 or 2018 when she ran for office. Or perhaps you just pay your bill and have no idea who is in charge. Either way, tax collectors get a bad rap. “It’s a biblically hated position,” Walls said. “I can’t think of a more unpopular topic than tax collection.”

What you may not understand is that the treasurer does not calculate the amount of tax you owe. “The treasurer’s office is responsible for collecting the taxes, starting from mailing the bill all the way forward. We have nothing to do with the numbers on the bill, unless you’re late, and then there are late fees,” Walls explained.

Unusual for an elected official, Walls was hired by former County Treasurer, Doug Henderson, with the intent that she would take his place. A Certified Public Accountant, with a professional background that includes auditing and tax preparation, Walls was not considering government employment. “I had this stereotype in my mind of what government employees were like, and I didn’t want to be part of a bureaucracy that got nothing done,” Walls said. “After meeting Doug [Henderson] though, I felt he was someone I could get behind, but he definitely threw me for a loop when he said he’d only hire me if I wanted to be Treasurer.”

Henderson told Walls he intended to serve two terms and hoped that Walls would succeed him, but three years into his term he decided not to run for re-election. “I was six months pregnant and had not planned to run for office,” Walls said. “But I figured becoming the boss would be better than getting a new boss.” And four years later, she is continuing to be the agent of change she was hired to be.

Walls prides herself on thinking ahead, and because of her ability to step outside the box, Beaufort County has one of the most progressive tax collection systems in the state. For example, we were the first county to provide account-level collections data and to offer electronic billing. (Walls worked with Senator Chip Campsen to get the legislation passed to make it legal and secure.) “I was so appreciative of his willingness to push to get that passed. It gave every county in South Carolina the ability to deliver more efficient service,” she said. “Now you have a choice. You can opt in and pay your taxes within five minutes. Need a decal from DMV? You show them your phone.” However, if you become delinquent, you will still get a letter in the mail, she pointed out.

“I’ve had people ask, ‘Why didn’t you just call me when I was late?’ We’re serving hundreds of thousands of accounts.” (Only a small percentage are delinquent, but it translates to about 20,000 accounts.) “I wish it were so few that I could just call. It’s difficult to balance that, because I want our taxpayers to receive personal service when they need it. If you call or email us, or you walk in, you’re going to get that.”

Another positive outcome of her tenure and tenacity is the management of cash flow by partnering with three+one advisors, a move that increased earnings 699 percent in the first fiscal year and is on target for even greater returns this year. “What I attribute that increase to is managing our cash flow to the day. It stays invested and works for us until we need it. What we were earning per year, we are now earning per month. It supplements tax revenue. The largest share of those funds will be for the school district. It doesn’t mean they will be flush with cash, but maybe it means the millage rate doesn’t increase as much as expected or maybe they will be able to fund a project that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. My job is not to decide how it’s spent but to make sure it’s available.”

In addition to her forward-thinking collection policies and responsible stewardship of your tax money, Walls is dedicated to her staff. “I don’t do this alone,” she said. As a wife and working mother of four, she is in tune with her employees, most of whom are working moms like her. “I want them to feel supported, trusted, invested in, valued … and part of that is training,” she said. Every team meets at least once a week for training on a specific aspect of their job, e.g. customer service, business writing, safety procedures, or conflict resolution. (“Not everyone who comes in is happy.”) Once a month, the whole department meets to talk about topics that affect everyone. Then twice a year, fall and spring, the office is closed for a day of staff development.

“If you interact with our office and I have employees who feel valued and buyin to our mission and core values, they are going to give you accurate information and the best possible service,” Walls explained. In the same vein, she has implemented telecommuting options for certain positions. This has allowed her to keep valuable employees by giving them the flexibility to work more efficiently while taking care of their personal lives and their loved ones.

Implementing online services, maximizing our cash flow, and offering progressive staff development are just a few of the many ways Walls is leading Beaufort County with eyes straight ahead. “I really get excited being the first one to do things,” she said. “Doug [Henderson] taught me not to be scared of change. He used to equate it to a train. It’s awesome. It’s sleek. We’re all excited to be on it. But the train is only going forward, and you’re either on the train or you’re off. I’m on the train 110 percent for as long as I’m here.”

While she holds a public position, Walls says her job is personal. “I live here, too. I’m raising my family here; my husband has a family business here. I have to accept that everyone will not agree with me or like what we’re doing—because we’re collecting taxes. But we’re going to do the right thing.” 

Learn more about the Beaufort County Treasurer and discover the many resources available to you at https://www.beaufortcountytreasurer.com.

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