“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” famed author Mark Twain once wrote in a letter regarding stories that circulated about his demise.
Similarly, stories about the demise of private businesses that sell Florida auto license plates, renew auto tags, and process vehicle titles — including The Beacon’s story in our Feb. 18-24 edition — may be premature.
Even before Volusia County’s first elected tax collector in 50 years took office Jan. 5, a controversy was building over whether nongovernmental- vendors would be allowed to provide tag-and-title services to the public.
That controversy, fraught with some animosity as each side claims it is in the right, is heading to court. The owners of private tag offices in Volusia County, including one in Deltona, are suing Tax Collector Will Roberts for the right to remain in business.
“He’s out for blood,” Celine Pelofi told The Beacon, referring to Roberts. “We were cordial to him. We very cordially tried to work with him.”
Pelofi is a key account manager for Dealer Services Network, a Deerfield Beach firm that owns First Deltona Tag Agency and two other such businesses in Volusia County.
The Deerfield Beach firm had a contract with Volusia County; Roberts’ position is that since his office — not the county — is now doing tag-and-title services, that contract is void.
Pelofi said there was another six months to go on the contract.
Roberts says he and his staff will provide the best, fastest, most transparent and least costly vehicle-registration services to Volusians, so private businesses are no longer needed.
“They were a third-party vendor in Deltona,” Roberts said. “It’s because they had a contract with the County of Volusia. Because of Amendment 10, that contract became null and void.”
As matters stand
First Volusia Tag Agency’s suit filed Nov. 17, 2020, against Roberts alleges that Roberts has “undertaken a personal campaign to damage First Volusia because, upon information and belief, First Volusia and/or certain of its principals, supported another candidate for tax collector in the 2020 election.”
That other candidate was former Florida Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona. Roberts garnered just shy of 60 percent of the vote in the Aug. 18 primary election for tax collector.
Roberts denied that his actions with regard to First Volusia are politically motivated.
Between his election and his being sworn in as tax collector on Jan. 5, Roberts, according to the lawsuit filed in Circuit Court, was “(i) threatening to terminate First Volusia’s contract with Volusia County when he takes office.”
The complaint also alleges:
- Roberts was “interfering” in the leases between First Volusia and the owners of the office the company was renting
- Roberts was “interfering” in the private tag agency’s relationships with its employees, but recruiting them to join his staff
- Roberts was “trespassing” when he visited First VolusiaTag Agency offices to seek out personnel for his new agency.
Exhibits attached to the complaint include a copy of a letter from Roberts’ attorney to First Volusia’s landlord in Deltona.
“For your information,” the Oct. 20 letter reads, “First Volusia Tag Agency will be required legally to wind down its affairs in Volusia County. Beginning in January of 2021, the Tax Collector will be responsible for providing the services currently provided by First Volusia Tag Agency. Therefore, on behalf of our client, we would like to discuss our client’s desire to provide the same services at this location and would appreciate the opportunity to negotiate the terms of a new lease agreement at your earliest convenience.”
In October, Roberts was still a county employee. The letter from his attorney to the landlord earned Roberts a written admonition from County Manager George Recktenwald.
“As we have discussed, the County has a contract with First Volusia Tag Agency, Inc. … to issue license plates, and as we have shared with you, it alleges you have attempted to interfere with their business by trying to hire their employees and by indicating that you would take over the leases on their offices,” Recktenwald wrote to Roberts on Oct. 28.
Recktenwald also reminded Roberts that he had asked Roberts, in an Oct. 15 meeting, not to interact with First Volusia Tag Agency.
“As an employee of the County, no action should be taken by you that may be perceived as interfering with the business of the Tag Agency during the County’s business hours or in a manner that gives the appearance of acting on behalf of the County,” the letter continues.
Pelofi said Roberts solicited employees from her company.
“He had gone into an office and told our employees that they were going to be out of a job, and they should come to work for him,” she noted. “He stole two of our employees.”
The feud has escalated. First Volusia Tag Agency’s civil suit was filed Nov. 17. First Volusia is asking for a jury trial and “money damages in excess of $30,000.”
“As a direct result of Roberts’ actions, First Volusia has been damaged,” the complaint states.
The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Kathryn Weston.
In his response to the suit dated Dec. 15, Roberts “denies the allegations” of causing damage to First Volusia. He is asking the court to “dismiss the complaint.”
As matters stand — Part II
At this writing, First Volusia’s offices in Deltona and Ormond Beach remain closed. Pelofi said the closings were a result of the pandemic and a need for retraining of the staff. She added the offices will reopen.
“We’re shooting for April 1. We need to see what happens in the next 30 days,” Pelofi said.
Ways of doing business will be different. For example, patrons who come to First Volusia to buy license plates or renewal decals will not walk out with them. Rather, First Volusia will send the auto-registration items by courier to the customers.
“We had to rebrand ourselves as a courier service,” Pelofi added.
When The Beacon talked with Roberts earlier this month about the future of the private tag offices, he said the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in Tallahassee had sent a letter telling First Volusia to end or wind down its business by Jan. 31.
The Beacon subsequently obtained a copy of the email letter, which is dated Jan. 5 — the day Roberts officially took office.
“This day the department [DHSMV] has been formally advised by the newly elected Tax Collector for Volusia County that he does not intend to contract with any license plate agents to process title and registration transactions,” the letter reads.
The letter continues, advising First Volusia Tag Agency that, as of Jan. 6, 2021, an agreement that had enabled the private business to do tag-and-title work “is no longer valid.”
The letter continues, “The department requests that you work diligently to finalize all pending title and registration transactions currently in your possession and to fully wind down operations by January 31, 2021.”
Despite the company’s stated intention to resume its work under new circumstances, Roberts says he is fulfilling his commitment to the people of Volusia County by consolidating all auto-registration services under his authority.
“We’re offering great service. Our wait times are going down, and we don’t charge any extra convenience fees. You can walk out with it [the tag or decal] in your hands,” he concluded.
— In 2018, more than 60 percent of Florida’s voters — a solid majority — affirmed a Florida constitutional amendment, known as Revision 10 or Amendment 10. The cumbersome multi-provision addition to the state’s basic law requires each county to set up elected constitutional officers, including the clerk of the court, sheriff, elections supervisor, property appraiser and a tax collector.
Before Volusia County became a home-rule charter county in 1971, each of those elected posts was in place, and each person in one of those offices was a constitutional officer.
A constitutional officer is a state official elected locally. A constitutional officer is separate from the county government, accountable to the governor instead of the county manager or County Council. A constitutional officer has a great deal of autonomy in hiring and firing employees, setting his/her own agency’s budgets, purchasing and contracting.
— When Volusia County’s charter went into effect, six months after its adoption in a countywide referendum, the county government was completely revamped.
The old five-member County Commission gave way to a seven-member County Council, who would choose a county manager, similar to a city manager, who would act as chief administrator of the county government.
Under the charter, which was consistent with the then-new Florida Constitution of 1968, a home-rule county could designate key constitutional officers — namely the sheriff, property appraiser, elections supervisor and tax collector as elected department heads under the county manager.
These officials lost their constitutional standing. Only the clerk of the court, who was never under the county manager, remained independent of county government.
— Over time, the sheriff, elections supervisor and property appraiser continued to operate as they had in pre-charter times, campaigning for office and accountable to the public, and also accountable to the county manager.
The tax collector, however, vanished as time passed. The duties of the tax collector — receiving payments for county taxes and assessments, selling license plates and renewal decals, processing vehicle titles, and selling hunting and fishing licenses — were absorbed by the county’s Revenue Division.
Until Jan. 5, Roberts was an employee of the Revenue Division.
— Before the 2018 general-election ballot, architects of the Volusia County charter sued the state to prevent the placement of Amendment 10 on the ballot.
Dr. T. Wayne Bailey, a Stetson University political-science professor emeritus, and Dr. P.T. Fleuchaus, a retired oral surgeon and former County Council member, contended the re-establishment of officers would undermine the home-rule charter. Volusia County joined the suit, as well.
The plaintiffs were rebuffed in court, and the constitutional proposition was subsequently adopted by a sufficient number of Florida’s voters.
— After the passage of Amendment 10 at the polls, Bailey, Fleuchaus and the county government — as led by the County Council — continued their legal battle, this time to prevent the implementation of the constitutional change in Volusia County.
The courts, both circuit and appellate, rejected their arguments. The County Council last year refused to support an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, and the county resigned itself to living with Amendment 10.
Amendment 10 became effective Jan. 5 of this year.