Suzanne Johnston had just returned from her honeymoon in St. Augustine with her husband Albert in 1970 when he stopped the car at a grocery store in Bunnell and went in. Suzanne stayed in the car. A stranger nocked at the window.
“When are you going to come to work?” the man asked her, startling her.
“I’m sorry sir. I don’t know who you are,” she replied.
“I’m Don Moore, the tax assessor,” the man told her. “Albert said you’d come to work as soon as you’d get back from your honeymoon.”
“Well, I guess I’ll be there Monday,” she said.
“And that’s when I went and started work” in county government, Johnston recalled in an interview this afternoon. She hasn’t left since, but come the end of next year, she will step down from her position as Flagler County’s Tax Collector, a post she has held since her one and only contested election in 2004, winning re-election unchallenged four times since. (Property Appraiser Jay Gardner did her one better: he won his 2004 election uncontested, and has won without opposition since. He’s running again, as are all the other constitutional officers–Tom Bexley, Kaiti Lenhart and Rick Staly). Johnston would have won again, most likely unchallenged (who would be so foolish?), had she decided to run this year. But she’s decided it’s enough.
“When this term ends, I’ll be 75 years old,” Johnston said this afternoon. “I’d like to think you would write that I look a lot younger, but I will. And that’s getting up there in years.” Of course she looks a lot younger. But it’s going to be a big change.
“You just won’t have that iconic person. She’s Flagler County, she’s always been Flagler County,” says Gardner, who’s been Johnston’s closest friend in government over the years: it was Johnston who got him to run the year she did, one day when he was having lunch at what used to be the Red Gator. “She was born in this area, she was raised in this area. How many people have been here longer than her? Only a handful in the entire county. I think I’ve been here a long time, that’s 45 years, I don’t think that scratches Ms. Johnston’s longevity. I don’t know if I can talk about her age.”
But today, Johnston talked about her age.
In nearly 54 years, she worked at what was then called the Tax Assessor’s Office when it was a three-person operation, including her, starting at $75 a week ($609 in today’s dollars, or $32,000 a year), and when computers were still something you saw on Star Trek, then in its final year on television, not on every desk in the office.
In 1981, Gov. Bob Graham appointed her to fill out the term of the property appraiser for a year, even though he was a Democrat and she was a Republican: bipartisanship back then was not a heresy. But she opted not to run for elected office when it was over: her son Bart (in the picture above) was just 4, her daughter Suzie, the current mayor of Flagler Beach, was just seven months old, and for the Johnstons, family came first: it’s mostly why Suzie is stepping down as mayor in March after just one term–to devote more time to her family. Politics can wait.
For Suzanne Johnston, it waited until 2004, the year John Seay retired as Property Appraiser, clearing the way for Jay Garder. Suzette Pellicer retired as Tax Collector, clearing the way for Johnston (Pellicer died last November). She drew Kerry Ellis in the Republican primary, dispatched her with 84 percent of the vote, then beat Rick McGraw in the general election with 65 percent of the vote, and hasn’t had to run a campaign since, for the rather obvious reason that her office, now a 42-person operation with two satellite locations, has tended to run with Swiss watch precision and Magic Kingdom customer service.
“I’ve worked very hard for the people and tried to make it as easy and convenient for them as I possibly could,” Johnston said. “My office wouldn’t be what it is without my top notch team.”
What will she do in her suddenly magnified spare time? She’ll read, for one–she likes to read, tough we’ll keep it a secret as to what–but she also asked Sheriff Staly if she could get into volunteering on cold cases. “That would be so interesting and so challenging. And my thinking is very, very logical,” Johnston said. “That would be the whole inside scoop on everything that happened.”
Johnston was born in 1949 at Halifax hospital in Daytona Beach, grew up in Korona until the seventh grade, then in Flagler Beach, dividing her time between home, school–at what is now the Wickline Center–and the area around the pier they called “uptown” back then. “We’d be up there from daylight till dark and then come home for supper and everything,” she said. “Everybody knew everybody when you went to the post office. You knew every person by name.” (There are days when it still seems that way now, when people drop in at the 7-Eleven and the local owner, who happens to be a city commissioner and companion of Suzie Johnston, knows almost everyone by name.)
Suzanne Johnston attended the University of Florida, got married, then went to work and raised her two children, deepening her local roots as she went. She’d made three promises when she first ran in 2004: to put all tax records online, which she did. To open a satellite office in palm Coast in her first year, which she accomplished. (The Flagler Beach satellite office opened in 2017.) And to open a walk-up window for after-hours, which she also did once the new Government Services Building opened in 2007. “And I promised my mother that as long as I was tax collector, the phones would be answered by a real live persons,” she said. That’s remained true, at least to the extent that, once a caller now navigates past a recording, a live person will pick up.
Though she’d known for a while that she’d not run again, she made her decision with a lump in her throat, “because when you’ve worked somewhere basically 54 years is what I’d been here in county government, you feel responsible for the future years,” she said.
Meanwhile, she’ll be campaigning for her protégée, Shelly Edmonson, her second in command at the Tax Collector’s office and a veteran of seven years there, who will soon be announcing her run in hopes of succeeding Johnston. “She’s very responsive to our residents to the leads of the community, she’s excellent on customer service. The public would be in good hands with Shelley,” Johnston said.
Her one big hope for the future of the office: “Older people don’t grasp the new technology as quickly,” she said, imagining herself needing some services there in the future. “Give me a hand and treat me just like I’m their mother or their grandmother.”