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Tax mix-up blamed on new computer
By Beth Blake, Staff Writer
BEAUFORT - If you're going to make a blunder in mailing out a delinquent county tax bill, the last person you send one to is one of your bosses.
But Commissioner Bettie Bell, along with 999 other taxpayers, mistakenly got a notice this week from the County Tax Department saying they hadn't paid.
Out of 6,000 delinquent letters that were sent Monday, .MDNM/1,000 went to taxpayers who had paid or were listed incorrectly for some other reason.
The county has always had some problems after mailing out delinquent tax notices, especially with name errors, because of the number of families with the same last name.
But nothing has been on the magnitude of this year's snafu, admitted Vicki Landingham, county tax assessor.
The problem came as a result of software glitches in the new $705,000 computer system the county is purchasing over the next five years from ACS, Affiliated Computer Services Inc. of Lake Park, Minn.
``The program did not function properly like we were assured it would,'' said Mrs. Landingham.
Property owners got bills for deferred property, which is farm land that's not taxed at the full rate until it's developed.
Accounts in bankruptcy got bills, when they are to be held until the proceedings are settled.
Small unpaid balances had interest calculated using the total, instead of the portion owed, so a $3 balance, for example, was billed $60.
But the errors were only on the letters, not in the tax collection file on record, according to Mrs. Landingham.
Errors were made on the solid waste fee charged for rural residents.
Some paid accounts were mailed delinquent letters.
And some payments made in November of last year, just before the system went on line, were not converted to the new system, so taxpayers got delinquent letters.
``I'm not real happy,'' said the beleaguered tax assessor.
While the problems rest with the software produced by the vendor, Mrs. Landingham said she took full responsibility.
``It's so frustrating when you are trying to deliver improved and better services and something like this hits you in the head,'' she said.
Phones started ringing off the hook in the tax office Tuesday after lunch as taxpayers checked their mailboxes. Calls were so many and so often they tied up the lines to a point that people couldn't get through for hours on end.
Commissioners couldn't call in and had to call the county manager's office to find out why they were getting a barrage of questions from angry taxpayers clutching paperwork that verified they had paid their taxes.
Commissioner Bell's husband, Mike, got a letter stating he hadn't paid three years in taxes, but the property is deferred from taxes because of its farmland status.
``I thought he was going to have a heart attack,'' said Commissioner Bell.
And other taxpayers soon started filing into her restaurant on Highway 70 with paperwork in hand.
``What bothers me is that it looks like a red flag would have gone up when so many letters went out,'' said Commissioner Bell.
Last year, about 4,500-5,000 delinquent tax notices were mailed, according to Mrs. Landingham.
``Last year the county spent $800,000 to buy new software,'' said Commissioner Bell. (Actual amount was the $705,000) ``It was supposed to provide better services to the taxpayer.''
Commissioner Bell didn't vote for the purchase, and she's glad now. She said she felt then and now that it was too much money and workers could improve the system they had.
And she didn't like the wording in the letter. She felt it could have taken a more ``Gentle Reader'' approach instead of reciting state law and pointing out the taxes can come from garnishing wages.
``It was an ugly letter to send to the taxpayers,'' she said.
Mrs. Landingham said she hadn't received any other complaints about the wording of the letter.
``There are some upset people in this county,'' Commissioner Bell said. ``I'm upset in the way it happened and the letter.''
ACS and the county are working to correct the software and mend fences with taxpayers.
``I've been assured by ACS that nothing will happen like this again,'' Mrs. Landingham said.
Her staff is combing through the 6,000 names to find the 1,000 listed erroneously and will send out apology letters to each one, courtesy ACS, by the end of next week, assured Mrs. Landingham.
The tax office went on line with the new system on Dec. 1 of last year, a process that's required the conversion of a massive amount of records, including 10 years of delinquent taxes, according to Mrs. Landingham.
The combined tax and finance software package is the first of its kind in the state, and its purpose was to upgrade land records by replacing a nearly 20-year-old software package.
ACS is working frantically to mend the software mistakes.
They've ``pulled'' the company employee in Michigan who assured the software had been tested on deferred property, when in fact it hadn't, and have assigned a person in North Carolina to do software testing, according to Mrs. Landingham.
``It appears the mistakes came from the conversion,'' said Terry Henderson, ACS sales representative based in Raleigh.
``This is a glitch and we are very sorry it happened,'' said Mr. Henderson. ``We are working through it to ensure it doesn't happen again. We hope the public can understand we are working through it.''
There are always glitches in working a conversion of this magnitude, but most are ironed out through software adjustments or training, he said. But this glitch was such a public one, with letters going out to taxpayers.
Mrs. Landingham said there had been no other bugs.
But there are still a number of applications yet to be put on line.
``Prior to Monday, this system was the best thing since cotton candy,'' the assessor said.
``I'm disenchanted, and I've lost some of my confidence,'' she said.
A real test may come with the mailing of tax bills this summer.
Carteret has 52,000 tax parcels, mails out 120,000 vehicle tax bills and 70,000 personal and real property tax bills, making it a mid-size county in terms of land records.
Property taxes are due annually on Sept. 1, according to the county letter to taxpayers. They are delinquent after Jan. 5.
Interest accrues on Jan. 6 at a rate of 2 percent. Three-quarters of 1 percent is added each month after that until the taxes are paid in full.
``Delinquent taxes will be collected through garnishment of wages, attachment of bank deposits, levy on personal property, foreclosures on real property if not paid in full by the date requested,'' the letter states.
The remedies are provided by state law.
Unpaid real property taxes will be advertised this month in the name of the taxpayer as of Jan. 1.
The lien will appear in The News-Times and an additional $5 lien cost will be levied.
-- - (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 10, 2000