July 5, 2013

‘Accidental career’

Tax Commissioner Danny Sane aims to serve the public

By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications

Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series about “The Class of ’93,” three Whitfield County officials who were first elected in 1992 and have since been re-elected five times — Coroner Bobbie Dixon, Sheriff Scott Chitwood and Tax Commissioner Danny Sane. Today’s segment focuses on Sane.

Whitfield County Tax Commissioner Danny Sane doesn’t take long to sum up his philosophy of government.

“Some people who are elected have forgotten who they work for,” Sane says. “End of the story. There’s really nothing else to say. There are too many elected officials in this country and not enough public servants.”

One of the most important people in government, he says, “is the lady who empties my trash bin every day because if it wasn’t for her, this place would be full of trash.”

Sane didn’t actually plan to be a public servant working for Whitfield County residents  20 years after first reporting for duty as tax commissioner in 1993.

“I came here for four years, and four years only,” he says. “I wasn’t going to do it but one term.”

Back in the early 1990s, as owner of Dalton Auto Sales, Sane found himself standing in line “forever” to buy tags for all his vehicles.

“It was aggravating to come down here and buy a tag,” Sane recalls. “And I said, ‘Nah, this is not right. I can fix this.’”

So when Pryor Fitts, the tax commissioner, announced his retirement in 1992, Sane was quick to seek the job and try his hand at finding a new way to buy car tags.

“It took me three years to fix it,” he says. “I’m actually the tax commissioner that they sent to North Carolina to see how they bought their tags, and then when I came back, I was the tax commissioner that the revenue commissioner asked to go see the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. We asked him for $15 million to implement this system. They really believed in the new system.”

That should have been the end of Sane’s time as a public servant, but it wasn’t.

“I just wanted to get the law changed where you buy your tags on your birthday,” he says, “and then I was going back in the car business. But I found something that I love — and that’s helping people. And today there’s going to be someone walk through that door that needs my help, and it’s a wonderful honor. I love it.”

‘A little different’

Sane’s office is unlike any you’ll probably ever see in a public building.

As you enter the door, you’ll see a replica of a 1929 airplane built by Ford hanging in the air above his desk. On the shelves behind him is a large remote control boat that’s been run many times on the Tennessee River. On other walls and shelves, visitors find more signs and unusual antiques that are fodder ripe for conversation.

“People that come in here to see me are really concerned about their taxes,” he says. “Some of them owe one year, some two years, some three years. And they’re worried and concerned. It really helps to have a coffee pot sitting right there, and to be able to talk about collectible things. It just takes their mind away from it, and then we kinda ease into the collection issue.”

“I guess we’re a little different in Whitfield County,” he says. Sane acknowledges that he has a job to do, but he can do it with kindness and professionalism.

The numbers don’t lie.

“We actually have one of the best collection rates in the state of Georgia,” he says.

Working with the people and business owners works, Sane believes.

“I mean, if you own a business and you’re struggling … which I talked to a local businessman this morning that called me at home early, concerned about his taxes. He doesn’t have the total amount; however, he can make payments each month until paid in full.”

Despite the fact that Whitfield County’s population has grown tremendously since he took office, Sane has managed to keep the same number of employees as his predecessor had in 1992.

Technology welcomed

He’s managed to keep costs under control and better serve the public at the same time, through a willingness to embrace technology when it makes sense.

“We have probably one of the most technological computer systems of any tax office in the state,” Sane says. “Myself and four of the largest counties in the state started a company called TC Tech about 12 years ago. I serve on the board of directors with Gwinnett County, Cobb County, Fulton County, DeKalb County, so anything they’ve ever experienced with their hundreds of thousands of people, we’ve incorporated into this office to try to keep down staff because let’s face it, staff is the most expensive part of government.”

First, though, let’s go ahead and explain one technology you won’t find in the Whitfield County tax commissioner’s office: voice mail.

“We don’t have ‘press 1 or press 2’ here, and I’m not going to ever have it,” he says emphatically. “And the reason is I want you to talk to a human being when you call this office — end of the story. I’m not old school — I’m the hugest technology nut you’ve ever looked at.”

Voice mail is about the only technology you won’t find being used by Sane’s employees. For example, they’ve had a video switchboard system for years that allows operator Lynn Hefner to look quickly at who’s available throughout the office to take a call and switch the call there.

“That way, whenever you call here,” Sane says, “you get one person and you’re not transferred all over the building. This is great technology. We’ve been doing this a long time. The public loves it. It’s the No. 1 compliment that I get every day.”

In fact, because of that accessibility, Hefner frequently gets calls from the public “for everything else in Whitfield County — look at what she has here,” Sane says, pointing at a list at her desk. “She’s gone to the trouble of getting every department’s phone number in the county so she can either transfer them or give the caller the phone number.”

In another small room, Sane takes a visitor to see Becky Vance, who’s operating a new machine that makes quick work of depositing the hundreds of checks that come into the office every day.

“We’re the first county office in Georgia to have this system,” Sane says. “Becky can take a big stack of checks, and it reads them front and back, adds them to the computer, makes out a deposit, and puts the money in the bank. It used to take us till 3 in the afternoon every day to do this. Now we’re done by 9:30 or 10. So what does that do for us? It frees up someone to help the taxpayers from about 10 o’clock on.”

That kind of technology, Sane says, “is what I look for every single day.”

Through his affiliations with TC Tech, Sane has a front-row seat to seeing the latest technology available from dozens of vendors from around the country.

“We want to bring the latest technology to Georgia,” he says, “and I’m going tell you something — that technology is saving this county time and money every day! Forty-three counties, including Whitfield, currently are members of TC Tech (Tax Commissioners’ Technology Development Council) and share a goal of bringing new technology to their offices.”

A Whitfield native

Sane gets his no-nonsense attitude from his parents, John and Nina Sane, who set a great example for him during their 66 years of marriage. John passed away in 2008, and Nina followed last December.

Growing up in Tunnel Hill, Danny attended the Seventh-day Adventist School in Dalton, The Learning Tree, and then went to Collegedale Academy and Dalton Junior College, where he became a certified welder.

“I can weld as pretty as you’ve ever seen,” he jokes. “It doesn’t help me in my daily work, but I’ve welded many things for friends and neighbors.”

Speaking of friends, he enjoyed a particularly close relationship with his father.

“One day he told me, ‘Son, I’m going to give you two pieces of advice, every day when you get up in the morning, put your feet on the floor and that minute, I want you to start hunting something to laugh about — because there’s going to be plenty thrown at you to cry about. He was right.

“And the next thing he said was, ‘Don’t ever vote for a Democrat … or don’t ever vote for a Republican either.’ He said, ‘You better vote for who’ll take care of you when you need them and who has your family values.’ Now, I think he was right on both of those.”

That fun-loving nature that is evident in his advice can be seen in the practical jokes his dad loved to play, Sane says.

For example, there was the time when Danny bought a CB radio to try and cut down on his speeding tickets. His dad, who owned a retail carpet outlet in Chattanooga, had a similar problem with a heavy foot so Danny offered to install a CB radio in his father’s truck so he would be able to avoid any more speeding tickets.

“So I bought him a Cobra 23-channel CB and laid it in the seat,” Danny recalled. “That day he and I were on our way home. We came by the welcome center, running 80 mph, and that was back when Carter was president and the speed limit was 55. Well, the State Patrol pulled me over and walked up to the window and asked to see my license and registration. My dad looked over at him and said, ‘Don’t show him anything, roll that window up and let’s go.’ The trooper said, ‘Sir, I have stopped this young man for speeding, and you’re not going anywhere.’ Dad said, ‘You can’t write him a ticket.’ He said, ‘Excuse me, sir? Would you stay out of this? I’m not talking to you about this. I have stopped this young man for speeding.’ Dad kept on and said, ‘One last thing, you cannot write him a ticket because he told me today if we’d buy a CB radio we wouldn’t get any more tickets. I bought one, and here it is!’”

“Cost me $123 for that ticket!” Danny said with a chuckle. “My dad knew exactly what he was doing. So we loved to play jokes on each other.”

That brings up another humorous story about a visit with his father a few years back.

“I’d go down and drink coffee with my dad on Sunday mornings,” Danny recalls. “One time I rode my motorcycle down there and had a cup of coffee with Dad. I asked him, ‘At what age do kids quit making stupid decisions?’ And my dad sat there for a minute and says, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t know?’ ‘Don’t know,’ he goes. ‘I’ve got a son that’s tax commissioner that just bought a motorcycle.’ I had just bought a Kawasaki road bike, so he was right. It probably wasn’t the best decision, but it was just something that I wanted to do. I can tell you a hundred stories just like that.”

‘A wonderful staff’

That fun-loving atmosphere carries over to the staff at the tax commissioner’s office.

“We do that kind of stuff around here behind the scenes,” he says. “I mean, we serve the public and we love the public, but my staff has a lot of freedoms. My theory here is that your Lord comes first, and your family comes second, and the Whitfield County tax commissioner’s office comes third.”

He calls it a wonderful relationship with his staff, many of whom have been with him for years.

“We don’t have a big turnover,” he says. “I don’t micromanage anybody. My theory is if I’ve got to tell you what to do, I’d really just rather do it myself.”

Lately, his staff has had its hands full, helping the public understand the complicated new law for vehicle tags.

As for a seventh term, Sane says he wants to remain in office “as long as I am progressing, as long as I’m moving this office toward where it needs to go. I never want to get stale. I love my job too much.

“Things have changed, and to try to stay ahead of that curve is a real challenge to me. If you talk to my staff, you’ll find out that they are a driving force, too.”

Sane says his office is the only non-merited office in Whitfield County. He believes his way of running the office breeds hard work and caring for the customer.

“I had a lady call one day about two years ago and say, ‘My husband’s had a heart attack, and his birthday is tomorrow, and we’re at Hamilton Memorial Hospital.’ One of our front line clerks took the call and said, ‘Danny, she’s worried about her tag running out.’ I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, you tell her to forget that — take care of her husband — soon as she gets out of the hospital and gets time, I’ll take her penalties off — just come and see me, it’s not a big deal.’

“She said OK, but a minute later she comes back and says, ‘That’s not the problem. He’s going to be in the hospital for awhile, and she’s got to drive back and forth to Cohutta and she’s worried that she’s driving on an expired tag.’ I said to my clerk, ‘Well, what do you think we should do?’ And she says, ‘I can take it to her on my lunch hour.’ I knew what I was going to do — I was going to take it to the hospital. I had an employee out doing some collections and he was going by there, so he took it. So how do I feel about my staff? Good people with a caring attitude.”

It all goes back to his philosophy of government.

“I think sometimes we forget who we work for,” he says. “That is a huge part of my philosophy — to never forget who I work for. The voters gave me a huge opportunity. I was a car dealer; I didn’t have any political experience behind me. I wasn’t polished. So the public gave me an honor when they voted for me the first time.”

“I feel like I need to repay that honor,” Sane says, “by doing my job and doing it right and doing it the best way I can. And as you can see by looking at some of the things in this building, I’m not asleep. I’m trying to stay on top of it. I am staying on top of it. That’s important to me.”

What’s also important to him is his relationship with his wife Pam, children, and grandchildren.

Even his marriage has ties with the tax commissioner’s office. His wife was the deputy tax commissioner in the south Georgia county of Appling, and she now works in her husband’s office as bankruptcy specialist.

The marriage united two families, including Danny’s daughter, Amber Sane, and son, Travis Sane, and Pam’s children, Brandi Sellers and Timothy Hollis. Then there are three granddaughters, Campbell Sane,  Khloe Hollis and Savannah Sellers.

No regrets

When he left the used car business in 1992, Sane had planned to reopen his business when he left office four years later.

Of course, he loved the tax commissioner job so much that he never went back to the car business.

“Today I’m as healthy as a horse. I feel good. I still don’t think I’m 57, but my wife keeps reminding me I’m not 22 anymore,” he says with a laugh.

“I’ve lived a very full life and enjoyed myself,” Sane says. “I’m probably one of the few people that you might meet who doesn’t have a lot of regrets. I really don’t.”

Asked what he thinks the epitaph on his tombstone might read some day, he says, “I guess it would be ‘No Regrets.’”