HOTSEAT- The revenuer: Commissioner reveals secret solar side

Lee Richards

Sometimes on ballots are positions that you have no idea what they're about, like Commissioner of Revenue. Charlottesville has one, and he's running unopposed for his fifth term. And to hear Lee Richards tell it, his job isn't just to extract moola from taxpayers.

"We put value on things," explains Richards, while another constitutional officer– Jennifer Brown, the city treasurer– collects it.

The Commissioner of Revenue is the chief tax assessing officer of local government, explains the city's website. Yet the real hot button, real estate assessment, falls under the director of finance. "This is a very political place," observes Richards. 

Personal property tax assessments, business licenses, meals and hotel taxes, phone and utility taxes and cigarette taxes fall under his domain, as well as publicly murkier ones, like "bank franchise tax" and "rolling stock tax." We don't ask. 

During his chat with a reporter, Richards mans the business license desk, and has a steady stream of customers.

"I closed my business," says one woman. 

"Bring in your information," says Richards, "and we can get it worked up for you."

Another woman comes in to get a temporary business license.

"I can work any desk here," says the Commissioner. "We do a lot of flex time, and I push people to go to school."

Everyone in his office cross trains to work at least two, if not three, desks. "The taxpayers deserve that," says Richards. 

Another surprise: his office helps prepare state tax returns for citizens, and files them for free. And it manages the housing affordability program that provides grants to help lower-income homeowners hold on to their their houses in the face of spiralling property taxes. That's the one of which Richards is most proud. 

"I don't think people really understand what we do,"  he says.

No kidding.

Lee Richards is a local boy who grew up on Little High Street until his parents moved to the 'burbs. 

His grandmother worked for an attorney on Court Square, and that, he says, caused him to gravitate to public service.

He joined the Marines, and came back with a college education– but without any tattoos. "I don't drink either," he says. "It's not my thing. But I still get up at 3am and run." And he has to get up and throw wood on the fire. One other reason for running in the middle of the night: "This job's a little stressful," he admits. 

Out of the office, the Commish generates his own power from the 18 solar collectors on his roof, and sells the excess to Pennsylvania. He dreams of the day he can buy an electric car and plug it into his own solar-generated power at home. "But I hate to buy cars with all those taxes and insurance," he complains.

He has no doubt that solar energy, like plastics in the '60s, is the wave of the future. "It's going to blow you away," he predicts. 

As for how a citizen might reduce her personal property tax, Richards says it's simple. "I stopped driving years ago." (He takes JAUNT or CTS into work and then walks home, clocking about 12 miles a day on foot.)

For those who can't follow that suggestion, he has another: "If you're going to buy a car, call us and see what assessments and taxes are going to be." For Richards, the choice of car is the sort of decision that determines other aspects of life. His choice? "I pay low taxes on energy and cars." And that choice has him putting in time working on his woodpile and organic garden. 

Although Richards is again unchallenged in the election, he claims he's no shoo-in. 

"You never stop running," he says. "This is not a cush job. I haven't had a vacation in years."

He mentions more than once that he's big on having his employees work on furthering their educations. His is in history and education. He espouses another tenet of public service. "It's really more about helping people than a gotcha thing."

And an example of Lee Richards' leadership style: His staff helped answer his Hotseat questions.

Age: 60

Why here? Charlottesville native. Great place to work and raise a family.

What's worst about living here? The traffic.

Favorite hangout? Sherando Lake

Most overrated virtue? Too easygoing.

People would be surprised to know: I was a security guard for Hall & Oates in college.

What would you change about yourself? Be a bit taller.

Proudest accomplishment? Working with staff to create an innovative and productive office.

People find most annoying about you: I tend to be perceived as very aloof.

Whom do you admire? Abraham Lincoln

Favorite book? Gettysburg by Stephen Sears

Subject that causes you to rant? Drivers on cell phones.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Survived the 20th century.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Facebook

What do you drive? 1990 Jeep, but normally ride JAUNT or CTS.

In your car CD player right now: Car is too old for a CD player.

Next journey? National Book Festival in Washington D.C.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Overdue library book

Regret: I have none. You cannot go back.

Favorite comfort food: Apples

Always in your refrigerator: Apples

Must-see TV: The Weather Channel

Describe a perfect day. Family day at Sherando Lake

Walter Mitty fantasy: To be a professional baseball player.

Who'd play you in the movie? Jimmy Stewart

Most embarrassing moment? When I realized I was watering an artificial plant.

Best advice you ever got? Save is a four-letter word, but do it a lot.

Favorite bumper sticker? Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.