Few things can be more maddening than dealing with a government agency, especially one that takes your money. But Doug Belden changed that experience as Hillsborough County Tax Collector, building an office focused on customer service and 21st century expectations.
Belden, 66, retired this month after completing a final, four-year term, and he leaves an office remarkably different from the one he inherited after first winning election in 1998. Long gone are the endless lines, indifferent bureaucrats and grungy offices that once typified county government. Belden trained a new generation of employees, computerized the operation, enlisted online tools for greater convenience and created a process for taxpayers to hold him accountable. His office became faster and more efficient, and along the way, saved taxpayers millions of dollars in overhead, while easing the hassle residents and employers faced in conducting routine county business.
Belden’s office has become something of a one-stop shop for an array of licenses and permits. His sense of innovation and attention to detail enabled him to retain a customer satisfaction rate of over 96 percent. In 2008, his agency received the Florida Governor’s Sterling Award, becoming the first tax collector in Florida and the first government agency in Hillsborough to be honored with this distinction for excellence. Belden’s office was lauded with another Sterling Award in 2011, reflecting the deep-seated improvements he brought to the agency. And his successor as tax collector, Nancy Millan, was a longtime member of Belden’s executive team, a testament to the strength he nurtured within the organization.
Belden’s success as a Republican in a Democratic county reflects his roots in the community, his nonpartisan nature and the fundamental decency he brought to political life. He had few open disputes over the years; an ethics complaint involving his potential 2020 reelection bid marked a rare whiff of controversy. Belden saw public service as an honor that required giving back, and he lent his time and resources to a host of worthy community efforts.
Belden’s retirement leaves County Center a more boring place. His tendency to go off-script will be missed in an era of tortured political messaging. His ability to bring Republicans and Democrats together, both here and in Tallahassee, for the region’s common good is not something that anyone can replace overnight. To most, Belden may have only been the name on the envelope with this year’s car registration. But the competence and commitment he brought leaves a lasting legacy of what good people in government can accomplish.