She was tapped through the local Republican Party in 1984 to be considered for the position of Cobb’s deputy chief tax commissioner. After an interview with former Tax Commissioner Jim McDuffie, Downing found herself in office as his deputy.
Now after 30 years of service in Cobb, spending 12 of those as tax commissioner, Downing has retired to spend more time with her family.
Downing’s husband, David, retired from Boeing earlier this year.
Pointing to photographs of her children and grandchildren on the wall of her east Cobb living room, Downing said, “Those are my reasons for retiring right there.”
Downing qualified to run for her third term as tax commissioner in 2012, she said, with no intentions of retiring, but her life changed later that year when her sons moved farther away and two of her grandsons were born.
“All of a sudden everybody was really far away,” Downing said.
The next tax commissioner election will be in 2016.
Downing’s chief deputy, Carla Jackson, took office as tax commissioner Jan. 1, receiving an annual salary of $124,321.
Downing was paid $136,143.
Many challenges faced in office
Stepping into her role as deputy tax commissioner, and eventually tax commissioner, was “all brand new,” Downing said.
“There’s no way to learn it except to roll up your sleeves.”
It also required adjustments for her family. Downing recalled a conversation she had with her son’s elementary school teacher just after she took office. Her son hadn’t completed his homework and told his teacher that his mother didn’t have time to help him.
She vowed to not let that happen again.
“Any mom who has young children, it’s kind of hard to keep that balance,” Downing said.
In the office, she points to technology as both her biggest challenge and one of her biggest accomplishments. Under her administration, Cobb moved all of its property tax payments online.
With all of the county’s 260,000 parcels having taxes due in the same three-month period, it’s difficult to handle the volume.
“You can’t really staff to handle that kind of volume,” Downing said.
She also touted improvements to customer service made during her tenure.
“We get probably 26,000 or 27,000 customer comment cards a year,” Downing said, noting each one is read by someone in the office.
Ever-changing public policy was another challenge, Downing said, because the tax commissioner’s office is regulated by the state Legislature.
A recent example of a difficult bill to interpret is the 2013 law, Downing said, that eliminated the annual ad valorem tax car owners paid and instead implemented a one-time sales tax of 6.5 percent, increasing to 7 percent in 2015.
“It has just been constant conversation among tax commissioners about, ‘OK how was the law intended,’” Downing said.
Cobb school board member David Banks said that new law will cause the school district to lose $30 million from its special purpose local option sales tax program.
Deputy takes over
Downing was elected to her office, but when she retired her chief deputy, Carla Jackson, stepped in to fill her shoes without an election.
That’s because Cobb is unlike any other Georgia county, Downing said, and allows a deputy to take office during a vacancy.
When candidates for tax commissioner qualify to run for office, they must name a deputy. That deputy does not appear on any ballot, like a vice president does in a national election, but it is registered with the local Board of Elections.
Downing said voters who elected her in 2012 also elected Jackson. They just didn’t know it.
It may improve the process, Downing said, if deputy candidates were also listed on a ballot.
“I really think that was to spare the expense of an election,” Downing said.
Jackson called Downing a role model, mentor and friend.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Gail, both personally and professionally,” Jackson said. “During the 10 years I’ve worked with her, it was clear to me that Gail approached her job with integrity and humility.”
The Gail Downing file:
Education: Western Carolina University, did not graduate
Family: Husband, David; sons, Matt, 32, and Stuart, 30; grandchildren, Sarah Kate, 3, Dawson, 23 months, Alissa, 10, Lucas, 7, Kaleb 16 months