By Tiffany Razzano | La Gaceta
For Doug Belden, family is everything. In fact, the Tampa native owes everything he is today to the influence of his parents, his grandfather and other older family members while growing up, he said.
His father grew up poor, raised by a single mother, a hair stylist, who always tried to do the best for her son. His father’s father left the family when he was 7 years old and was determined to do better for his own family as an adult, Belden said,
A star athlete, he played football and basketball at the University of Florida. After college, he worked his way up in the whole-sale business. “I really learned my work ethic from my dad,” Belden said.
His mother was a housewife who focused on raising him and his three sisters. She also was a giver who was concerned about the community, he said. She spend much of her free time volunteering at local hospitals.
And her father – his maternal grandfather – Dr. Ed Flynn was an important influence on his life, as well. His grandfather came from a large Irish family who were all successful, community-minded people.
His grandfather was raised in Oklahoma. His own father – Belden’s maternal great grandfather – was a newspaper publisher who took a stance against the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK gave the family 48 hours to leave town or they would hang his great grandmother in effigy.
From there, the family landed in New Orleans, which is where his grandfather learned how to box. He was a champion fighter, even winning the Golden Gloves and a gold medal in the 1932 summer Olympics, but eventually decided to hang up his boxing gloves after 400 undefeated amateur fights to pursue a career in medicine. “He was tired of hurting people and wanted to be helping them,” Belden said.
His grandfather became an oral surgeon, often helping people – priests, nuns, farmers and others with little money – who couldn’t afford tooth extractions and other procedures. “He taught me the importance of pulling together and helping the underprivileged and poor. I learned at a very early age the importance of helping people out,” Belden said.
Then, when Belden was 17, tragedy struck his family. His father died of a brain aneurysm. He was out celebrating a promotion with friends on the golf course when he clumped over and fell out of his golf cart.
Paralyzed on his left side, he was in intensive care for three weeks. Belden visited him in the hospital every day until he died. “It was absolutely traumatic when we lost him,” Belden said.
It wasn’t long before tragedy affected his family again. This time, when he was 26 years old, his mother died from breast cancer.
“It was hard on me and my three sisters. Very traumatic is the word,” he said. “The good news is it made us all closer and stronger.”
The work ethic he learned from his parents only grew stronger, he added. “I have a Type A personality. I’ll just work and work and work and work.”
Belden studied at the University of South Florida before realizing his proclivity for the real estate industry. He worked as an agent and broker for Bobby Sierra, learning everything he knew about the business from him.
At 28, he realized his entrepreneurial tendencies by going into business for himself, partnering with general contractor Bernie Martin to form MB Development and build multifamily homes. They mostly built condos and townhomes in South Tampa, working with Jim and Robert Walter on the financing end of their deals.
In 1998, Belden ran for the position of Hillsborough County Tax Collector for the first time. “Of course, I was the underdog.” he said. “But I won. I asked for a chance and (voters) gave me that chance.”
He had long been interested in politics – another influence of his grandfather – and decided it was time for him to get involved on the local level. Working in the private sector for so many years, he saw the reputation that government workers had. “Government has always been regarded as being lazy folks, not getting anything done,” he said> “I thought, I’m going to run and show that it can be done like a private company.”
One of the first things Belden did when he took office was modernize it. In fact, it was his pledge to transform the county’s tax collector’s office into “the most modern and efficient agency ni the state of Florida.”
He also focused on improving customer service for residents dealing with the office. “I believe this office accomplished those promises and much more,” he said. In fact, for more than a decade the office has maintained a customer satisfaction rate of more than 96 percent. The county’s call and payment processing center also operates at a level comparable to the top offices in the country.
In 2004, under his leadership, the office adopted the Sterling Management System. This is the state-level equivalent of the Malcolm Baldrige national quality program. The Hillsborough tax office even received the Florida Governor’s Sterling Award for Performance Excellence in 2008. He was the first county tax collector in the state, as well as the first government agency in Hillsborough, to win this honor.
Belden’s office was honored again in 2011. This time, it received the Florida Governor’s Sterling Sustained Performance Excellence Award.
In 2011 and 2012, his office also received the Florida Tax Collector’s Excellence in Financial Operations Award in 2011 and 2012. This is one of the top state awards a tax collector’s office can receive.
Throughout his time in office, Belden also received various personal awards for his achievements and his work in the community. In 2013, he won the Madison “Matt” Landley Bell III Award, which is presented to tax collectors who have made significant impacts on the Florida Tax Collectors’ Association and Florida’s citizens. Other honors include the Tiger Bay Lifetime Achievement Award (2020), the Governor Bob Martinez Good Government Award (2016) and the Ellsworth G. Simmons Good Government Award (2014).
He credits all of his agency’s success to the team he works with. “I don’t like the word ‘I.’ I like the word ‘we.’ I wouldn’t have accomplished any of this on my own,” he said. “I’ve had the most dedicated and loyal employees in the organization all these years. I believe I have the greatest employees.”
He’s also proud of his non-partisan efforts for the community. “I never put politics over friendship,” Belden said. “I never have, and I never will, particularly in this time with our very divided nation. I support everyone. All ethnic groups, Democrats, Republicans. I treat everybody the same.”
This philosophy goes back to his grandfather, he added. “He taught me to help the poor and the underprivileged and to treat everyone the same and with respect.”
Over the years he forged friendships with people from all walks of life, he said. “I’m close friends with the janitor at the county center but also close friends with the county administrator.”
Belden has done significant work in the community over the years, often raising money for those in need through events and fundraisers. he’s helped everybody from individuals in need of a lung transplant to St. Peter Claver School.
Facing his own medical issues, he’s set to retire from the tax collector’s office Jan. 4. It wasn’t an easy decision, but he needs to focus on his health, he said. “I don’t feel I can provide the same level of accomplishing good things with these conditions. You’ve got to know when to step down. You’ve got the be realistic that some of this stuff will get worse before it gets better. But I’m fighting it every day. I’m a fighter. I just don’ think in my condition it would be fair to the voters, though.”
Even still, he’ll continue his community work, and plans to launch a foundation with several of his friends and peers. “I’m very passionate about it,” he said.
Looking back at his career and his time in office, Belden calls it a very, very good journey.”
He added “I greatly appreciate all my supporters over those years. I’ve given it all I’ve got.”
And he can only say he has one regret. He wishes his father, mother and grandfather had been around for some of his accomplishments. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done on my own,” he said. “I do wish they were alive to see what I had done over the years.”