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Nov 28, 2021

A True Lowcountry Treasure: Maria Walls

Barry Kaufman

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Can government bureaucracy and innovation ever truly co-exist? Just ask Beaufort County Treasurer Maria Walls.

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Former president Ronald Reagan once famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” With all due respect to the man they called The Great Communicator, that’s not entirely accurate. In certain circumstances, public servants can do amazing, innovative things. They can foster and execute ideas that cut through red tape, delivering vital services and creating—get this—efficiencies. If the Gipper thought government was incapable of helping, it’s only because he never met Maria Walls.

As the duly elected treasurer for Beaufort County, she has taken a radical approach to the department, one that has earned her accolades including the 2021 National Achievement Award, County Executive of the Year, and SCGOP Local Government Award. She is also the only two-time recipient of Thomson Reuters’ Office Holder of the Year, which recognizes government officials who have achieved excellence in planning, leadership, and service.

And while she may be the exception to President Reagan’s famous quote, she certainly sympathizes. “We all have a stereotypical view of government service, and it’s usually not a good one,” she said. “I think what people should expect from our leaders, whether elected or not, is agility, adaptation, innovation and proactiveness. And when you have layers of bureaucracy, that is a hindrance to agility. Because I’m elected, I don’t have those layers.”

Instead, she can focus all her energies on the sort of innovative solutions and streamlined ideas that have set her apart. It also helps her build the right team around her, something that has had a tremendous impact on the work her office does in service to taxpayers.

From left to right: Tanya Ward (Deputy Treasurer), George Wright (Senior Data Analyst), Kimberly Chesney (Tax Collector), Maria Walls (Treasurer), Doris Bowers (Operations Manager), Jennie Stanek (Executive Assistant), Jeff DeLoach (Deputy Tax Collector)

“Being an elected treasurer allows me the autonomy to lead my office in a way that benefits the taxpayers, not just government,” Walls said. “I don’t have to lead my team in a typical governmental way. We can be innovative. We can have a great office culture. We can offer convenient services. I’m beholden to my taxpayers, and everyone on my team feels the same way.”

That team approach is key, with Walls focusing on core values and ability to innovate when interviewing new applicants. “We’ve really tried to take a different approach,” Walls said. “Really it’s just an alignment of values. I can teach taxes. I can’t make you buy in to the culture we’ve created.”

And that culture is helping Walls and her team do remarkable things. As a registered CPA, she has put her considerable financial acumen to work for Beaufort County’s taxpayers. “We look at the duration of the investment to determine how long the money will be tied up and measure that against how soon we might need it,” she said. “If there are funds available to invest, we put those funds to work. What we used to earn per year in investments, we are now earning per month.”

When last year’s annual tax bills were delivered late, creating potential catastrophe for taxpayers and local governments, Walls’ team created a pre-payment program that allowed customers to pay their tax bills up front. Not only were customers able to take advantage of their income tax deductions, our local governments, which rely heavily on tax revenue, were able to continue functioning seamlessly.

And when COVID hit, her team was ahead of the curve when it came to online payments. But they still saw opportunities to innovate, adding kiosks for contact-free payments. “When I saw pop-up tents in front of county buildings with Rubbermaid bins where you were supposed to leave your paperwork,” she said, “that was unacceptable to me.”

Because of this constant pursuit of innovation and team-centered approach, Walls has delivered Beaufort County’s highest-ever collection rate. Last month at the delinquent tax auction, the number of properties offered for auction was the lowest it has ever been. In fact, Walls reports that more people registered to bid than they had properties on which to bid.

“What’s exciting for me is that you could literally have asked anyone on my team what they think, and they’d tell you the same thing,” she said. “We want taxpayers to see us how we see us—through our core values and how those values perpetuate what we’ve built.”

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