Art Lawler Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Around the Pontotoc County Courthouse, Shari Todd and Debbie Byrd are sometimes known as dead-ringers for Laverne and Shirley.
Where you see one, you’ll usually see the other, but that’s going to change at the end of September.
Todd, who has served as county assessor for more than six years, is retiring, and Byrd, her deputy, will take over longtime friend’s job on Oct 1.
They started working in the department just months apart more than 30 years ago. They can finish one another's sentences. They are ardent supporters of each other.
“I’ll tell you how smart this girl is,” Byrd said of Todd. “The state has an accreditation department which offers seven courses. You have to pass all seven of them. Well, Shari had a perfect score in all seven of those tests,” said Byrd, 55.
Most of their friends see the similarities to Laverne and Shirley right off. Byrd has been known to wear a sweater with the big, cursive L sewn onto it. Shirley — or the retiring Shari, if you will — has a more low-key style.
She didn’t really make a perfect score on all seven of those tests, Todd said. “I made 98 on the last one."
“It was a mistake,” Byrd insisted. “She had the right answer. They just made a mistake, that’s all there is to it.”
Todd doesn’t want a going-away party, but nobody's listening to her, there will be one. She admitted she’s shy but is getting better. “When I first started, if you looked at me wrong, I’d start crying,” she said.
Bashful or not, Todd has too much personality to pull off the shy routine for long. She and Byrd love interacting with taxpayers, who are sometimes unconvinced their property has been properly evaluated.
Nothing surprising about that. “Who wants to pay taxes?” Byrd said. “I certainly don’t.”
There are seven employees in the assessor’s office. Todd said they’re all great with customers.
Taxpayers sometimes forget that a new patio or storage unit or remodeling project can increase the value of a home.
Sometimes, they forget about the inspectors who cover every inch of property in Pontotoc County over a four-year period.
The Oklahoma Tax Commission, Ad-Valorem Division, tells assessors. If county workers can’t satisfy customers, they are encouraged to refer those customers to the state office. In 31 years, the Pontotoc County Assessor’s office has had three complaints filed on its assessments. They were upheld each time.
But getting back to the Laverne and Shirley routines; they mostly derive from the many business trips the two women are required to take for updated training.
Here are some other similarities to the sitcom characters:
“I’m 67,” Todd said.
“No, you’re 66,” Byrd replied.
“No, I’m 67.”
“No, I know because we went to work the same year,” Byrd answered.
Laverne and Shirley grabbed their calendars. Todd went to her calculator.
“Oh, my,” Todd said, “I’m only 66. I’ve been short-selling myself.”
How did they get to be such a close team? “I told Shari I have gone and done more things with her than with anyone in my life,” Byrd said.
Todd agreed. She and her husband Eric have been married for 48 years. They have two grown sons and two grandsons. Eric is an offset printer at Chickasaw Nation.
Byrd and her husband Roger live in Byng. They have two two daughters and a grown son.
As for getting angry with each other, it just doesn’t happen.
“We may not have always totally agreed, but we didn’t fight about it,” Byrd said. They will needle each other when they get the chance.
One thing they agree on is that Todd never leaves anything to chance. She likes to stay a few steps ahead of whatever is coming up.
“She (Shari) started thinking about retiring a couple of years ago,” Byrd said. “She knew there were a lot of things I’d have to learn when I took over, so she just started teaching me. It’s not like I’ll be walking in and getting blindsided.”
“She is a very conscientious employee who really cares about her job,” Todd said of Byrd. “She’s fully accredited. After 31 years, she knows the ropes. She goes out of her way to spend time with customers.”
“In this job, you’ll run into little old ladies whose husbands have handled the taxes forever but then die. They bring in their papers and are petrified,” Todd said, adding that Byrd is careful in explaining everything to these customers and putting them at ease.
“We try to always remember this is an elected office and we treat people the way we want to be treated,” Byrd said.
Todd never faced an opponent in an election. What she will soon be facing are some young grandchildren. Her new title will be "baby sitter."