The legal troubles of McLennan County Tax Assessor-Collector Buddy Skeen serve as a backdrop to the three-way primary battle to fill the seat.
Skeen, 69, is running for his seventh term as tax assessor-collector. He faces two challengers in the Republican primary — Jeff Nickell, a Realtor and former Waco police detective, and Randy Riggs, a certified public accountant and former member of the Waco City Council.
There are no Democrats running for the seat.
Recent campaign mail-outs sent by Nickell seek to put Skeen’s charges at the forefront of the race.
Skeen was indicted on theft by public servant and forgery charges in December, and he now faces one count of abuse of official capacity and five counts of misappropriation of fiduciary property. His trial date has been set for Sept. 17.
Nickell’s mail-outs also contend Riggs originally was a Democrat, but Riggs notes that he always has run as a Republican when seeking office.
“All he did was bring out his own character,” said Skeen, who took issue with Nickell’s advertisements. “You don’t show good integrity or character by running somebody else down instead of putting your best foot forward.”
Nickell said his intention was not to sling mud against his opponents, but he felt those two points illustrated that he was the better option of the three candidates.
Nickell, a broker at ReMax, said he manages more than two dozen realtors and administrative staff at ReMax, and he would draw on that experience to streamline operations at the tax office.
“I thought it needed to be cleaned up, and I thought someone had to get in there and be a different leader and run that office differently so that people could be proud of it again,” said Nickell, 49. “Just the implications alone, and I understand that he hasn’t been convicted and he may never be, but the implications just don’t look good.”
Nickell said the biggest change he wants to implement is having check payments made out to “McLennan County.” Currently, property tax notices instruct residents to make out checks to “A.F. ‘Buddy’ Skeen.”
“A lot of people I hear from when I’m out in the community, they hate having to put someone’s name on there,” Nickell said. “They don’t think it’s right.”
Riggs, who served on the city council for 10 years, said his decision to run came after Skeen’s first bout of legal issues, but he had considered seeking the office for a few years at the urging of community members.
He opted not to seek another council term to campaign for tax assessor-collector, and the council Tuesday swore in banker John Kinnaird to fill his District 3 seat.
Riggs said experience as a CPA and his 20 years on the McLennan County Appraisal District board of directors qualify him to oversee property tax collections.
He is also a member of the Governmental Accounting Standards Advisory Council, which makes recommendations on the accounting practices and regulations governmental agencies must follow.
“Being a CPA, in a sense we’re held to a standard . . . that we cannot do an act that is discreditable to our profession,” said Riggs, 49. “You have levels of the law, ethics and morals — you can be legal, you can be ethical, and you can take it a step forward and you need to be moral, as well.”
Like Nickell, Riggs said he also would want to make sure property tax payments are made out to McLennan County to prevent any confusion and accountability issues.
Riggs also wants to improve relationships with local auto dealers to see if there are any ways to streamline automobile tax collections, and he wants to begin sending out property tax bills electronically to residents who would prefer that method instead of receiving a hard copy in the mail.
Skeen said his office is working toward implementing that option, which could be available next year.
Riggs said he also would be interested in reviving the scofflaw program, which attempts to recoup delinquent traffic fines by blocking drivers from renewing their vehicle registrations until the fees are paid. The program generated just more than $4,000 since it started in 2009, according to Skeen.
Skeen’s office said it no longer wanted to participate in the scofflaw program in a March email to the county’s information technology director.
Riggs said he thinks convincing other cities in McLennan County to use the program will be the key to generating revenue.
Riggs said Skeen’s office proposed a $25 fee per ticket when pitching the program to the city of Waco.
“If we don’t have the city of Waco, which is the largest city in McLennan County, and they’re not participating in that program, well, then it’s difficult for it to fly,” Riggs said. “I think it can be done as a service for all the cities in the county for a fee that’s more reasonable.”
Skeen said he agrees that participation from cities is needed to carry the program, but he insists that County Commissioner Kelly Snell pushed for a higher fee to boost the amount of revenue the county would collect. Snell has said Skeen’s office acted independently in setting fees to be charged to cities.
Skeen blamed miscommunication with the McLennan County Commissioners Court for the end of the program, but said he still is interested in making it work. Nickell said he is not in favor of the scofflaw initiative.
Among the other goals Skeen has if re-elected is to add electronic banking as a payment option to allow residents to withdraw property tax payments from their checking accounts, a process his office already has started.
Skeen also would like to expand the responsibilities of the tax office. He plans to join a statewide coalition of tax assessor-collecters who lobby the Texas Legislature to allow tax offices to issue passports.
The biggest overhaul Skeen proposes would be to combine the appraisal and tax collection functions under his office. Skeen said doing so could cut down on costs, specifically two hefty salaries for the chief appraiser and the tax assessor-collector.
Skeen said the county then could outsource some appraisal functions, if needed, for more complex, industrial properties, which he said could eliminate other personnel positions and enhance the accuracy of property valuations.
“The values are put out there, and it’s a shot in the dark,” said Skeen, who has long been critical of the appraisal district. “We can’t back them up. But a firm that has that ability and expertise will back up the appraisal of M&M Mars, or Caterpillar.”
But Drew Hahn, chief appraiser for the McLennan County Appraisal District, said such a move wouldn’t be allowed under state law. Hahn said state statute does allow taxing entities like cities and school districts the option of contracting with the appraisal district to collect its property taxes.
Hahn said Skeen would have to become a registered professional appraiser to head appraisal duties.
“Appraisal districts were made to where they didn’t have elected officials, because if someone came and said, ‘I’m not going to vote for you unless you lower my values,’ then it presents a conflict of interest,” Hahn said.
Skeen said he opted not to campaign this cycle because he feels his name and reputation in running the tax offices smoothly in his six terms in office are sufficient to help him hold on to the seat.
Skeen said he is hopeful that voters can set aside the headlines concerning his charges and focus on the work he has accomplished.
“If I was campaigning and making posters, my slogan would only be to my constituents, ‘You’ve known me for 24 years, just do the right thing. Just vote for me so I can continue, and then I can retire next term in the position I want to retire in,’ ” Skeen said.
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