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Treasurer's office woes are taxing for some Several Peoria County school districts must return thousands of dollars

August 30, 2000

By JENNIFER DAVIS of the Journal Star

PEORIA - Lee Mehl has tried for more than a year to pay her taxes, nicely pleading with the Peoria County Treasurer's Office to cash her check for $568.70.

Eventually, though, after months of calls, "I just gave up" on paying the first installment of her 1998 property taxes, said Mehl, a 73-year-old widow who lives in The Uplands,

"I'd called (deputy treasurer Lyle McClellan) every month for 12 months so I just said, 'OK, I've been a good kid. I've done my part. I'm just letting this go.'"

While Mehl wishes she could pay, several school districts have the opposite problem: Peoria County Treasurer Edward "Tripp" O'Connor's office wants back thousands of dollars in tax revenue the schools were counting on.

The two unrelated cases are among numerous, and sometimes longstanding, problems in the treasurer's office currently under scrutiny by the state's attorney's office.

O'Connor, who was first elected in 1998, replaced his father, also Edward O'Connor, who held the post for years.

And while he doesn't blame his father, O'Connor says many of these now publicized troubles and deficiencies - including an instance of $12 million in checks shoved in a drawer for months - have existed for years. Others are because of new computer software, he adds.

"There's nothing new here. A lot of (fixes) we've already done, but it's also a continuation from forever," O'Connor said Tuesday. "We have multiple problems. With the software, we're still missing some (programs). Do we have a handle on the rest of it? I think we do."

The rest of it included things such as a lax billing system handled by one person - leaving the opportunity open for false bills to be issued, paid and that money never missed.

However, there is no evidence that has happened, just that the opportunity existed.

Now, three people oversee that work, O'Connor said.

"We do not have any checks just sitting around down here," said O'Connor, even though there's the question of Mehl's uncashed $568.70 check, something he was checking into on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Peoria County State's Attorney and Acting County Administrator Kevin Lyons set a series of deadlines for O'Connor to fix things.

"There's millions and millions of dollars that there is no daily (accounting of), no monthly ledger," Lyons said then. "I cannot tell you how much money Peoria County has."

Lyons couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday, but O'Connor believes the state's attorney is happy with the progress.

"I think he is," O'Connor said. "He hasn't said he isn't."

Lyons has also agreed that some of the problems are software-related, but that doesn't explain it all, he has said.

Computer error, however, is to blame for several school districts being hit hard this year, O'Connor says.

Some schools are having to pay back thousands of dollars which the treasurer's office should have reclaimed years ago.

Limestone Community High School District 310, for instance, is missing $84,000 out of $3.8 million in property tax revenue they were expecting, says associate superintendent Barbara Suelter.

Similiarly, John Link, superintendent of Hollis Consolidated Grade School District 328, says the treasurer's office wants back $45,345.

That's a big chunk, Link says, when you consider his small grade school, with its 120 students in grades K-8, only expects to take in $235,680 in total property tax revenue.

And, Link says, that's in addition to $18,000 the treasurer's office has already withheld.

Says Suelter: "I'm not pointing fingers, but we have to adopt a (FY 2001) budget by the end of September and I'm essentially shooting in the dark."

While a budgeting nightmare, the last-minute subtractions won't mean layoffs or program cuts at either school, they both said.

A few other Peoria County schools may also have to pay back thousands of dollars they didn't know they owed.

The reason? Specifically, O'Connor says a computer program "wouldn't accept" information on property tax abatements, which is when either individuals or businesses who protest their taxes are granted refunds.

Often the refunds are decided after the money has been paid to taxing districts, such as schools. It's O'Connor's job to get the money back from the taxing districts, but apparently that wasn't done for several years.

The schools - not happy to pay back years of abatements in one lump sum - are more upset that "nobody told us this was coming," Link said.

O'Connor, who plans to meet with the Limestone-area schools next Wednesday, says they can work out a payment plan.

"I feel for (the treasurer's office) in some ways, but they need to understand how it's impacting other people," Link said.

The county's tax committee meets today. Part of that meeting should include an update on O'Connor's progress.

-- Doris (, August 30, 2000

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