Two of the remaining three Travis County satellite tax offices, which have been closed since a multiagency fraud investigation was announced in May, will reopen in the fall, Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant told county commissioners Tuesday.
After the investigation was announced, Elfant put 21 employees on administrative leave and shut down all four of the county’s satellite tax offices, leaving only the main office open.
Since then, Elfant told commissioners Tuesday during a briefing at their regular meeting, 10 employees have been cleared to return to work. Elfant said he is working to fill vacancies to get the satellite offices staffed and running again. The Pflugerville office, 15822 Foothill Farms Loop, re-opened in July.
Elfant said he expects to reopen the Southeast Austin office, 4011 McKinney Falls Parkway, by Sept. 18 and the Southwest Austin office, 8656 W. Texas 71, Building B, by mid-October. The East Austin office will be the last to reopen.
Elfant and Joe Marshall, chief deputy of the Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office, said lengthy recruiting, hiring and training processes have caused the delay in reopening the satellite offices. Employee training can take up to six weeks in the motor vehicle department, Marshall said.
“It’s been slow in part because the current job market is so good,” Marshall said, adding that the county had lost multiple candidates to higher-paying jobs. “It’s very good for Austin, but it’s detrimental to our hiring processes.”
Elfant also went over steps his office has taken to improve tax office operations, including working with the Precinct 3 constable to investigate fraudulent dealerships. Elfant said the collaboration has already resulted in one dealership’s shutdown and arrests.
“We recognize the long-standing operational weaknesses,” Elfant said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get enough done fast enough, and as the guy at the top of the … organizational chart, I must accept responsibility.”
Elfant’s briefing Tuesday came after a grand jury slammed his office last week in a three-page report, complaining about a “pervasive culture” of negligence and a lack of supervision.
One of the main concerns highlighted in the grand jury report was a lack of supervisors at the county’s tax offices. Grand jurors wrote that they heard evidence that several supervisors were not making their required semiweekly visits to their assigned offices.
Marshall said a full-time supervisor has been placed at the Pflugerville office and that other satellite offices will not reopen until they each have a full-time supervisor in place.
The tax office also has mandated that only the main office will process title transactions for businesses, such as car dealers and runners, which are companies that employ people to wait in line at tax offices, Marshall said.
Marshall said the office’s internal auditors have started the process of auditing the motor vehicle department’s adherence to its red flag procedures for suspicious transactions.
Improving communication will be critical to addressing issues within the culture at the tax office, he said. He said he’s learned through talking with employees that many do not feel comfortable approaching top leadership with problems.
“We are committed to changing that and creating an environment where an open dialogue is encouraged in all levels of the organization,” Marshall said.
Monica Blackwell, the newly hired director of the motor vehicle division, said she will be reviewing all the department’s policies and processes and updating them. Blackwell said she has set up a meeting with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles’ Compliance and Investigation Division to go over changes and receive feedback.
Tax supervisors also have been conducting random audits of transactions to look for trends and have completed 600 this month, she said.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re all excited about the opportunities,” Blackwell said.