Observations & Reflections

Tax Collectors for Polk County (1861-1994)

While assembling the information recorded in the biographical sketches in the preceding section(on past Tax Collectors), a number of interesting stories or themes caught the attention of this researcher. This discussion is an attempt to capture some of these historical sidelights involving Polk County Tax Collectors.

In the early years of Polk County government, the Tax Collection function was performed by the Sheriff and the Sheriff was also the Tax Assessor (Property Appraiser). These early public servants served two year terms and usually stayed in office for short periods as the first ten individuals responsible for the collection of taxes served a total of twenty years. Many of these gentlemen also served in other state and county and local government capacities including State Representative, County Commissioner, County Treasurer, Surveyor, Clerk of Courts, School Trustee, Postmaster, Mayor and City Council Member.

Early Tax Collectors also were active in military affairs. Of the twelve individuals who assumed office in 1891 or earlier, two served in the Third Seminole War, four served in both this conflict and the Civil War and four others served in only the Civil War. Of this first group of Tax Collectors, only Robert Wilkinson and J. D. Tillis were not in the military. However, Tillis was involved in or affected by war as he survived an Indian raid on his family’s dwelling in 1856, and the Tillis home was again raided by Indians later in the Third Seminole War and then raided and later burned by Union forces during the Civil War. Archibald Hendry and Felix Seward exemplified the divided loyalties of the area during the Civil War. Hendry was recorded as an enlistee in a Union unit during that war and Seward is listed as serving in first the Confederate forces and then, following his capture, enlisting in a Union unit.

The award for most unusual name certainly goes to Cincinnatus Winchester Deeson. Apparently, Deeson was not overly fond of his given names as he usually went by C. W. or “Chester.” His habit of using Chester or C. W. as his name appears to have caused some trouble when his second wife applied for a widow’s pension for his Seminole War service. Among the official documents in the pension filing was one affirming that C. W. was really Cincinnattus Winchester.

L. M. Ballard provided a whimsical saga of mixed government/private roles after establishing a post office and store at Medulla in the early 1880s. Likely sensing that the arrival of the railroad at what was to become Lakeland in 1883 would provide greater commercial opportunity, he moved the store and post office to the Lakeland area. Although he made some arrangement to keep his post office in contact with the outside world, he neglected to inform postal authorities of the relocation. Eventually his postal superiors discovered the move and put an end to the “floating” Medulla post office.

Three Collectors in a row left office under a cloud of suspicion in the first part of the twentieth century. W. O. Jordan in 1910, F. Marion Lanier in 1915 and J. P. Murdaugh all were accused of irregularities in their duties. Murdaugh’s situation was the most sensational as a representative of Florida Governor David Sholtz came to Bartow on Jan. 26, 1933 and announced that the Governor had removed Murdaugh from his duties and appointed Paul M. Henderson to take his place. The abrupt suspension of the popular Murdaugh was a shock to local citizens and I suspect that they were even more startled when formal chares were filed against him. The legal process dragged on for some time, but Murdaugh was cleared of the first set of charges in November, 1933, when the presiding judge directed the jury to find for the defendant. The second trial was finally concluded in May, 1934, when a jury found him innocent of all charges. Mr. Murdaugh’s secretary was a key witness in these trials and at one point, she attempted to take responsibility for some apparently erroneous records entries regarding payment of employees.

Murdaugh certainly faced some adversity during the latter part of his public career as his trials followed a difficult period of tax collection. Polk County had experienced a significant increase in land values during the “boom” of the early and mid 1920’s, but the “bust” that followed found many property owners struggling to pay taxes on the inflated values resulting from the early period of euphoria. In fact, the largest landowner in the county, Consolidated Naval Stores, simply quit paying taxes at all in 1927. By 1936, the Company’s tax obligations totaled $77,000 and in that year, they asked the board of county commissioners (sitting as a board of adjustment) to significantly reduce the assessed value of their 140,000 acres in Polk County and to accept $28,000 to settle past tax obligations. Also, there was some disagreement over the constitutionality of the Collector remitting excess fees back to the county. While this was being resolved by the Florida Supreme Court, Murdaugh deposited some of the fees in question in a local bank. Unfortunately, the bank failed and had no funds to cover this deposit when the Supreme Court ruled that the excess fees should go to the county. Fortunately, the bank’s assets included some property in Bartow and this property went to the county in lieu of the deposited excess fees. Through this transaction, the county gained title to some of the land now occupied by Fort Blount Park.

W. O. Jordan apparently had some “getting-started” difficulties when he assumed office as Tax Collector in 1905. During his next campaign for this position, he complained that his predecessor had taken all operating instructions for the tax office with him (this was J. W. Boyd who moved to Miami after serving fifteen years as Tax Collector). The exact timing of Boyd’s departure was not recorded, but it is possible that a great deal of the knowledge in question was in Boyd’s head, rather than in a detailed instruction book. Jordan went on to say that he had learned what to do any way and felt that he should be re-elected. The voters of Polk County agreed and he was again elected.

As Polk County moved from Federally-mandated “Reconstruction” rules to more normal government operation, there was at least one period when government apparently ceased to function. At this point in time, almost all local officials were appointed by the governor, but local Democratic Party nominations for county positions were offered to the Governor and the State Representative from the county had much influence on the Governor’s decision. However, the selection of these nominees was complicated by another north-south conflict. This conflict involved the agrarian-oriented northern part of the county versus the southern cattle-raising segment. It appears that this conflict and the reported refusal of some appointed officials to assume office may have caused a virtual state of anarchy with regard to some government functions in 1879. Although there should have been a change of personnel or re-certification of incumbents in the first quarter of the year, a grand jury report in May of 1879 stated that the County Commissioners had not met for three or fourth months and thus there was “no qualified Assessor or Tax Collector” because their bonds had not been approved. A local news item in July of 1879 suggests that W. H. Johnson who had been nominated for Tax Collector in December, 1878 and apparently at least tentatively selected by the governor had not yet started his duties. Although the story in question was attributed to “Cracker” of Spring Hill (now south Lakeland), I believe it was authored by one L. M. Ballard who appears on state records as assuming the office of Polk County Tax Collector in September, 1879. The limited availability of local records for this time period prevented any further enlightenment on these interesting developments.

Elections of Tax Collectors produced several other noteworthy stories. Although Democratic control of the local political scene resulted in few inter-party contests, the Democratic nomination was sometimes closely contested. The proof that “every vote counts” can be seen in a couple of Paul M. Henderson’s races. In 1934, Henderson won a run-off for the Democratic nomination for Tax Collector by less than 350 votes (out of nearly 8000 votes cast) after garnering only 51 more votes than his nearest pursuer in the initial primary. In 1936, he won a run-off in the primary by 97 votes out of nearly 13,000 cast. Henderson couldn’t repeat his finger-tip successes in the next election as he was defeated in the 1940 Democratic primary by Ray Clements. This may have been the only time that an incumbent Tax Collector failed in a re-election bid.

Ray Clements was the main character in another unique election story. When primary election time rolled around in 1944, Clements was on military leave. It appears that he was nominated in absentia by the Democrats and reappeared in Polk County about the time he was elected without opposition in November, 1944.

F. Marion Lanier’s nomination as the Democratic candidate for Tax Collector in 1910 could not be described as a landslide victory. After being soundly trounced by incumbent W. O. Jordan in the initial primary election, Lanier found himself in a five-way race for the same nomination when Jordan chose not to run. Democratic officials decided that the nomination would go to the candidate with the most votes and Lanier was that individual as he amassed 529 votes, about 100 more than his nearest competitor. However, with the votes spread among the five candidates, Lanier’s total constituted less that 31% of the votes cast.

Paul M. Henderson was the Polk County Tax Collector when the Florida state legislature added an important new task to the Collector’s responsibilities – the issuing of automobile tags. Approved on June 12, 1933, and documented in Chapter 16085 of the 1933 Legislative Acts, this legislation was effective January 1, 1934 and Henderson located his tag office across the street from the tax office in the area where the Fort Blount Park is now located.

Ray Clements also faced a new development for the Collector’s Office in 1957. In April of that year, an open house was conducted at a new branch courthouse in Lakeland. One county commissioner stated that Tax Collector, Assessor, (voter) registration and driver’s license functions would join court oriented operations at this new location. At least initially, Clements and the other affected Constitutional Officers were non-committal regarding the decentralization of their operations.

The growth of Polk County from some 1000 citizens at its inception to today’s 450,000 residents is reflected in the enormous increase in values and transactions handled by the Tax Collector’s office. About twenty years after the creation of the County, assessed property values stood at $310,000. Just five years later and after railroads had entered the County, these values had increased to over $2,500,000. Driven by the developing citrus, timber and phosphate industries, assessments soared to over $9,000,000 by 1912. Although continuing to climb through the “boom” period of the early and mid-1920’s, the assessed values were significantly affected by the late 1920’s “bust” period and the Great Depression of the 1930’s. However the onset of World War II and the large population movement to Florida that followed the War (and continues to this day) have produced property valuations and resulting taxes that dwarf the numbers of the earlier periods. When Ray Clements took office in 1941, tax collections in Polk County totaled a modest $1,200,000. By 1964, when Clements neared the end of tenure, collections had jumped to approximately $17,000,000. During this same period, the county population grew from 80,000 to 200,000. In 2001, collections totaled more than $346,000,000. Polk County has certainly grown and prospered.

Vehicle tag sales have also mirrored the growth of the county’s population and demonstrated the popularity of things on wheels. The first automobile owned by a Polk County citizen arrived in 1902 and about 600 tags were issued in 1914. By 1941, the tag volume had grown to 29,000 and leaped to 122,000 by 1964. In 2001 tags or decals were issued for more than 350,000 cars and trucks and another 100,000 for trailers and mobile homes.

The preceding narrative was not meant to be a definitive history of Tax Collectors and their function, but rather an attempt to present a broader picture of the men and the political and economic environment in which they performed their duties. Their personal stories provide an interesting addition to Polk County governmental history.

Provided by Thomas L. Sailer, 2005