Voices of County Government - Hon. Donna Willis

By County magazine

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How long have you been a Lynn County Tax Assessor-Collector?
I was elected in 2012.  I worked two years part time and two years full time when I decided to run for Lynn County Tax Assessor-Collector.  I was sworn in on Jan. 1, 2013. I am in my seventh year and will seek re-election next year. 

Prior to your election, what kind of work did you do?  How did you get interested in running for office?
I substituted at Tahoka Independent School District for 20 or so years, any grade from kindergarten to 12th grade. I also drove a school bus daily during that same time. In 2001, a friend of mine who worked for the district clerk called and asked if I would be interested in working part time with them. I said yes and did that for eight years, while also doing part-time work for the probation office, county clerk office and the tax assessor. In 2009, the full-time deputy for the tax assessor retired, and I was sworn into that job. After my second year as chief deputy, Sherry Pearce, my predecessor, had some oil wells pop up in her backyard and decided it was time to retire after 30 years. She encouraged me to run and even campaigned for me. I won, and I was scared to death. 

What was the biggest surprise or adjustment after taking office? 
Even though I had worked in the tax office for basically five years, I had no idea how time-consuming and confusing the end of the month was. The in-depth process of paying the state and the county what was owed to them, not to mention watching your budget and not going over it. Thank goodness for computers that told me what, when and where to pay everything. I am also the voter registrar, so learning all the roads and making sure everybody is in the right precinct and in the correct voting districts are extremely crucial for any county, not just a small one.

What are some of the most difficult challenges you’ve faced, and what advice would you give your peers across the state who may face the same or similar challenges?
In the first V.G. Young School I attended, after I was elected but before being sworn in, all new Tax Assessors were told to have the office audited before taking over. I came back to Lynn County thinking I knew it all. I asked our internal auditor to audit the office three times before I was sworn in, each time she told me that it wasn’t necessary. However, 18 to 20 months later she told me that we were $10,000 in the hole and I had to find it. I really can’t count the hours I spent going over and over my reports, bank records, anything I could find that might help me. Mrs. Pearce even came back in and tried to help me, as well as the auditor. This went on for about six months or so.  

One day my son was trying to help and he asked me where the convenience fee for the credit cards went. I told him that I never see it, the credit card company keeps it, and I didn’t have anything to do with it. It was taken off before my part was put in the bank. A few days went by and when I sat up in the middle of the night and thought, “I don’t see it. I never see it!”  But I was taught to put that $3 fee in “additional charges.” The software we used told me to pay it back to the county, and I did every Tuesday on my reports. I went in to work the next morning on a Saturday, called the credit card company, and they got busy right then. After I went back it worked out to be between $9,500 and $10,000. So, on Monday, I went into the county judge’s office and told him, but the auditor was out for the week.  When she did come, I think she was as relieved as I was.  The county paid our office back within the week. 

Finally, I learned how to close out each month in a way that I could understand and then adapted the process to fit the auditor’s request. She even tells me I do a great job. In other words, take what you learned from your predecessor, then see how others do it, and listen to everyone’s advice. But in the end, design your own way of doing things. Always be prepared to listen, adapt, adjust and learn what is needed to excel in your job. Just because something was right a few years ago, doesn’t mean it is still right.

Since taking office, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
My county is small, falling in the “under 40,000 in population” range. You could even go so far as to say less than 6,000. Also, being the voter registrar, I know most of my under 4,000 voters in my county. I do love my small county. I am proud to say I know the majority of them and they know me. I cry with them with they come in to change names on a title when their spouse dies. I rejoice with them when they have a graduate with a new car or change names and addresses because of a marriage. Knowing the majority of my constituents as friends is my greatest accomplishment, I think.

 I am also proud that I was chosen to be in the first class of Leadership 254. It was an honor to participate with the other county officials. It was an uplifting, extremely fun and very informative experience. I learned firsthand about the jobs that the other elected officials do. It gave me more insight into our county and more appreciation for what we all do to keep our counties running smoothly.

After completing Leadership 254, I had the confidence to run for a position on the TAC Board of Directors for our Tax Assessor-Collectors Association and won a one-year unexpired term, and I am planning to run for a full two-year term this year.

What do you find are the most successful methods for reaching out to the residents of Lynn County to communicate what your office is doing and why?
I do not have a social media page — yet! In our county, probably one-third of the county is older and do not use computers. The best way to get the word out in my county is the local Lynn County newspaper, which is published once a week. Another way is word of mouth — everyone likes to talk. By which I mean, when you go out to eat, or go to the grocery store, post office, bank, church, beauty shop or even the doctor’s office, there is always someone that has to ask you a question. And everyone is open to hearing the answer. Sometimes they even call me or come to my house to ask questions, and I  don’t mind it at all. I attend fundraisers, stock shows, ball games and other activities around the county, so people will know that I am available for questions or just chit chat.

When you’re not at work, what are you doing? Do you have any hobbies or something unique that you’re interested in that may surprise your colleagues?
My grandsons, baseball, cooking, sewing, reading and gardening. I travel a lot around Texas for baseball games, stock shows, karate tournaments and work. I just started gardening about four years ago, because my son was diagnosed with end-stage liver failure and salt was highly restricted. It is very hard to find veggies with no salt at all, so we grew our own. Some people don’t know how much I love to bake. I have 30 blue ribbons and one “Best of Show” from the South Plains Fair over the past 40 years for my German Chocolate Cake. I also have 20 blue ribbons and one “Best of Show” for my Italian Cream Cheesecake.

What is your favorite thing about Lynn  County?
 The people of this county are phenomenal in lending a helping hand when needed. If someone is sick, all the farmers bring equipment and either plant or harvest their crops for them; others bring food to feed the farmers. It doesn’t matter which of the four communities in our county you live in, you still help all over the county. We have the best of both worlds because we are rural, but we are only 30 miles from Lubbock with all its entertainment,  restaurants and fun things there.