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Uncollected property tax figure grows
Richmond County officials blame computer problems for mounting uncollected levies
Web posted Mar. 27 at 01:47 AM
By Sylvia Cooper and Frank Witsil Staff Writers
Richmond County tax collectors said they failed to collect more than $2.8 million in property taxes billed in 1997 and 1998 because they did not have an adequate computer system.
Because of that, Chief Deputy Tax Commissioner J. North Williamson said, it was more cost-effective in some cases not to collect past-due taxes than to take legal action that would force delinquent taxpayers to pay.
As of Feb. 25, tax records showed that uncollected taxes billed in 1996 were $392,706. Uncollected taxes billed in 1997 were $886,196 -- more than double the amount from 1996. And uncollected taxes billed in 1998 were about $1.9 million -- more than doubled again from 1997.
Tax collectors say it is too early to tell how much will go uncollected from 1999 because bills are not due until Nov. 30. But the records showed as of Feb. 25 that there was about $5 million in uncollected taxes -- more than double the 1998 amount.
Still, Tax Commissioner Jerry Saul defended his office's overall collection record. The millions of dollars still owed in taxes, he pointed out, is only a fraction -- less than 3 percent -- of all taxes billed. According to his office, the collection rate for taxes billed in 1996 was 99.48 percent, and the rate for taxes billed in 1998 was 97.7 percent.
Mr. Saul said his office wants to resolve problems and expects to make changes that will improve the collection rate soon. Some delinquent taxes, he said, already have been paid.
Most problems should be fixed within six months, he said.
``Once all the procedures are in place that were in place before, we'll be back to 99 percent,'' Mr. Saul said. ``I'm not ashamed of what we've done. I think we've done an excellent job based on the obstacles we've had to overcome.''
One of those obstacles was a lack of complete or accurate information from the tax assessor's office, Mr. Williamson said. Incompatible systems between the tax assessor's office and the tax commissioner's office hampered collection efforts.
``In other words, I couldn't go out and levy against a piece of property without knowing the current owners,'' Mr. Williamson said. ``If I went against a piece of property in a prior owner's name, we'd be opening ourselves up for a lawsuit.''
The commissioner's office did not try to fix the computer system because concerns surrounding the Y2K computer bug took priority, Mr. Williamson added.
``If I had to blame this on anything, I would say it was Y2K,'' he said.
Computer problems have plagued the tax assessor's office and the tax commissioner's office in the past few years, said Meg Woodward, interim head of the tax assessor's office. Both departments have to work hand in hand, but they have not always been able to share information because of the incompatible software, she explained.
``They've had problems with theirs. We've had problems with ours,'' Ms. Woodward said. ``We still have problems.''
In January, the assessor's office installed new computer software from the Georgia Department of Revenue. The new system, Ms. Woodward said, seems to be working, but much work still needs to done.
SOME DELINQUENT BILLS are being appealed. For example, the Morris Museum of Art is appealing in Richmond County Superior Court its 1998 and 1999 personal property tax bills, including penalties and interest totaling $10,587. By law, the taxes are supposed to be paid even though they may be in dispute.
Tax records show several taxpayers with large delinquent bills recently paid up.
At least one, Mr. Williamson acknowledged, paid at the urging of the tax commissioner's office. He recently called Windsor Jewelers, which owed $105,580.
He said he warned the company that The Augusta Chronicle was investigating delinquent tax accounts and that the company's name might appear in the newspaper. The company, Mr. Williamson said, paid its bill the next day.
Donnie Thompson, owner of Windsor Jewelers, said The Chronicle's investigation has nothing to do with why he recently paid his taxes. He said he paid the bill even though he does not believe he owes that much and is disputing it.
MR. WILLIAMSON ACKNOWLEDGED that he called other delinquent taxpayers after The Chronicle began its inquiry, but said he did not warn them the newspaper was investigating the issue.
Businessman Bernard Silverstein paid $24,727 in delinquent taxes this month. He paid past-due bills for taxes owed on a Central Avenue property and personal property taxes for Silverstein's Cleaners.
Bed, Bath & Beyond at Augusta Exchange shopping center paid $24,700 in taxes March 20.
Robert L. Meybohm and Harinderjit Singh paid $12,307.27 for 2826 Hillcreek Drive and $4,111.43 for 2818 Hillcreek Drive on Tuesday.
Caresouth Homecare Professionals, 1030 Stevens Creek Road, on Thursday paid $23,257.03 for delinquent personal property taxes, penalties and interest for the previous three years.
But the recent payments raise questions, some city officials say.
Why didn't the tax commissioner's office try to collect more aggressively?
``Taxes are due when taxes are due,'' Augusta Mayor Bob Young said after hearing about Mr. Williamson's recent efforts to collect past-due bills. ``They should have been calling them all along. Why wait until a reporter from the newspaper makes an inquiry before calling delinquent taxpayers?
``It's just like delinquent water bills. If you don't pay them, you ought to expect to have your name in the paper.''
AUGUSTA UTILITY OFFICIALS also blamed computer software problems for their not collecting $2.6 million in delinquent water bills between 1996 and last year.
After The Chronicle published a list in September of the largest delinquent utility accounts, city officials began collecting some of the debts and implemented a policy that forces water customers to pay or lose service.
Generally, Mr. Williamson said, the tax commissioner's office gives delinquent taxpayers four months to settle after the due date. After that, his office is supposed to begin applying legal pressure on the delinquent taxpayer by filing a lien against his property.
A lien prevents a property owner from selling assets without paying delinquent taxes and initiates a process allowing the government to recoup taxes by selling property at auction. A lien also signals credit bureaus that a property owner may be in financial trouble.
``Some people need a little prodding,'' Mr. Williamson said.
But in the past two years, the tax commissioner's office placed no liens, except for ``maybe 100 cases,'' Mr. Williamson said. By not filing liens, his office had little power to do any prodding.
Again, he said this was because the office was operating with an inadequate computer system. Filing liens without computer assistance is possible but not cost effective, he said.
The 100 or so liens that were filed were prepared independently of the computer system that was supposed to handle them, he said. But it is a difficult and time-consuming process.
``It's not efficient,'' he said.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 27, 2000