Denver Hooten modernized the Dougherty County tax office after being named tax director in April of 1994. After almost 20 years as the state’s only appointed tax director, she is retiring at the end of the year. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — When then-Dougherty County Administrator Alan Reddish initially looked over the 52 applicants for the county’s soon-to-be vacant tax director’s position in 1994, he didn’t even call Denver Hooten in for an interview. The Americus CPA had built a solid career in the private sector and had experience working with government finance, but Reddish thought he had more capable candidates.
As fate would have it, the man Reddish selected for the position decided at the last minute to turn the offer down. That bit of providence opened a door that Hooten, given an opportunity, walked through. And for the last 19 years and eight months, she’s forged a memorable career as the state’s only appointed tax director.
In a little more than two weeks, Hooten will close the door on that career that saw her bring dramatic change to the position. As only the second full-time tax director in the county’s history, Hooten will retire Dec. 31 knowing she and her staff of 31 built one of the most efficiently run government offices in Southwest Georgia.
“It’s interesting that you’d ask about Denver because the county had its Christmas party last night and I spent a lot of time talking about her,” County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said Friday. “I first came onto the board in 1986, and I’ve worked closely with Denver very closely over the years. She is the most consistently observant and fair person I’ve ever worked with in any capacity. From the richest person to the poorest, she treats them all the same.
“Denver fully understands what is a very complicated job, and she’s dealt with a number of large issues over the years. In each of them, she’s treated the county taxpayers fairly and equally. That’s important because everyone wants to be fed from the same spoon. She’s done that so well over the years, she’s just a special lady. Hers will be some big shoes to fill.”
It was Hooten who stared down a prominent local attorney and didn’t blink when he challenged the office’s collection of penalties on late taxes, which hadn’t been done in the past. “He was raising cane, and I respectfully let him finish, then showed him the (state tax code),” Hooten says. “‘You, of all people, should know what the law is,’ I told him. End of conversation.”
Then there was the prominent citizen who tried to strong-arm Hooten into giving in on a tax matter that he didn’t particularly like. He waged a fierce battle that eventually drew County Attorney Spencer Lee into the fray, demanding that Hooten make an exception for him. “Finally, he sent me a note that said, ‘I succumb to the law,’” Hooten laughs at the memory. “I hung onto that. I thought it was a pretty good way of putting things.”
Perhaps most memorably, it was Hooten who remained steadfast in the face of outrage over a 2007 countywide tax revaluation that would have sent lesser officials running for cover. She withstood the onslaught, though, and leaves office secure in the knowledge that all but about 80 of the thousands of challenges her office and the county Tax Assessor’s Board faced have been settled. “That was the most unbelievable thing I ever went through,” she said. “It consumed this office for almost two full years.”
A native of tiny Whigham in Grady County, Hooten learned early about work ethic. Part of a large farm family, she worked in cotton, peanut and corn fields and tended to livestock alongside her parents and siblings. When she graduated Whigham High School (“in a class of 30”), she attended Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, preparing for a career as an extension agent.
“By the time I graduated, though, they’d phased those positions out,” she said. “I had to go to Plan B.”
Plan B sent her back to ABAC and eventually to Georgia College in Milledgeville, where she finished requirements for a degree in accounting.
“My first job (in Tifton) was in banking, and I’d always done well with numbers,” she said.
A move to Madison led to a job as plant accountant and eventually controller with Georgia Kraft Mills before it evolved into Georgia Pacific. It was while in Madison that Hooten finished work on her accounting degree and eventually became a certified public accountant.
After moving to Americus, Hooten landed a job with the Perry, Chambliss, Sheppard & Roland CPA firm, where she worked for more than a decade. Told about the pending retirement of Dougherty County’s first full-time tax director, Lou Sims, she decided to apply. When Reddish finally interviewed her, he knew he’d found the right person for the job.
“With her CPA background and her almost 20 years on the job, Denver’s been a wealth of experience and knowledge for the county,” current County Administrator Richard Crowdis said. “She understands what it takes to work with the Department of Revenue and the state laws and mandates. With more than 36,000 parcels of land in the county, there’s no question that her position is a tremendous undertaking.
“(Tax director) is one of the most important and critical positions in county government, and the knowledge that Denver brought to the job will be hard to replace.”
Hooten was granted a week to get married (husband David retired from Miller Brewing after 32 years) and go on a brief honeymoon. When she returned and settled into her new office, she started researching local and state law and picking the brains of supervisors in the tax office to get the lay of the land.
“It took me that first year to size things up and get a plan in place,” she said.
Once she’d devised a plan of attack, Hooten went about bringing the tax office up to date. She brought local practices into state compliance, planned a more aggressive approach for collecting delinquent taxes, upgraded the department’s outdated records system and lobbied to get her staff the tools it needed to do its work.
“This office had one tiny copier that didn’t work half the time, and there were no official vehicles that they could use to evaluate property,” she said. “There was also a tremendous need for education and for improved tools that would allow our people to do their jobs well.”
Hooten worked with county officials to get the things she and her staff needed, and the resulting efficiency became a model for the state. Tax collections in the county have come in at 98 percent or better throughout Hooten’s career, last year landing at 99.63 percent.
“That’s something we’re very proud of,” Hooten said after a recent Dougherty County Commission meeting. “You don’t see many counties across the state getting consistent 99 percent collections.”
Hooten announced earlier this year her plans to leave the office that she’s run so well over the past two decades. She and David are planning a move to Panacea, Fla., and to finally make up for that abbreviated honeymoon. A Vegas trip has been planned, and an Alaskan cruise is in the works.
“I’ve seen so many people on our staff retire on disability, and I wanted to get away while I’m still young and healthy enough to enjoy doing some of the things I’ve always wanted to do,” Hooten said. “I’m going to miss the staff I’ve worked with all these years, and I’m going to miss the people of Dougherty County. Some of the taxpayers have come to my office a little angry over the years, but all-in-all these are very gracious people.”
Crowdis named Shonna Colley, a 26-year veteran of the tax office, as Hooten’s replacement, and the soon-to-be director said she knows her former boss will be a tough act to follow.
“Working with Denver, I’ve seen first-hand what a great job she’s done,” Colley said. “Those are some big shoes to fill, but I think I’m ready for the challenge. Denver has helped to make sure I’m ready.”
As she leaves behind the post that’s become so familiar to her, Hooten admits she’ll have a tough time adjusting to life away from the bustle of the tax office. And while she’s not one to dispense a lot of unsolicited advice, she does note that there will be one priority that Colley and the tax office staff will need to maintain.
“This office is very important to this community,” she says. “It impacts every property owner in the county, and every one of them deserves to have their questions answered. We’re all human, and errors are going to occur. But you want to deal with them quickly and try to minimize them. One thing about this office is you always want to do everything you can to make sure things are done right.”
That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.