KING WIL­LIAM RES­I­DENTS SPARK AU­DITS OF COUNTY’S FLAWED TAX COL­LEC­TION

Daily Press - - Front Page - By Emily Holter Staff writer

KING WIL­LIAM — With 150 acres of land and sev­eral his­toric build­ings to ren­o­vate on his prop­erty, King Wil­liam res­i­dent Bob Hub­bard knew he was in for a chal­lenge. But when he re­al­ized his prop­erty as­sess­ment did not re­flect its cat­e­go­riza­tion, he didn’t ex­pect he’d have to wait six years to fix it.

When he took the prob­lem to the Com­mis­sioner of the Rev­enue’s Of­fice, he said he was told he missed an op­por­tu­nity to ap­peal and as a re­sult, would pay more in taxes on land that was es­ti­mated higher than its worth.

Hub­bard said he ac­cepted the de­ci­sion but it left him think­ing: how many other peo­ple have ex­pe­ri­enced the same thing?

“I just ac­cepted it and went on,” Hub­bard said. “But then I be­gan to hear from other peo­ple, sit­u­a­tions where their prop­erty was not cor­rectly cat­e­go­rized. Of course, all this in­for­ma­tion is on­line, so I went on­line and looked.”

Af­ter speak­ing with more peo­ple and look­ing at county records, Hub­bard said he re­al­ized sev­eral

res­i­dents were af­fected by in­cor­rect as­sess­ments, and his own neigh­bors weren’t pay­ing their prop­erty taxes on time.

“When you get peo­ple that haven’t paid in 25 years, that’s a prob­lem,” Hub­bard said. “That’s an en­tire gen­er­a­tion and the county needs tax money.”

He be­gan reach­ing out and hear­ing from folks who shared sim­i­lar prob­lems. So, he set out to fix it. Work­ing tan­gen­tially with other county res­i­dents, Hub­bard spoke with his dis­trict su­per­vi­sor in May, ask­ing the county to take a deeper look at the Trea­surer’s and Com­mis­sioner of the Rev­enue of­fices.

Af­ter Hub­bard came for­ward in May, sev­eral res­i­dents joined him in speak­ing out. Speak­ing dur­ing board meet­ings, res­i­dents sparked the county’s in­quiries, re­sult­ing in per­for­mance au­dits on the Trea­surer’s Of­fice and the Com­mis­sioner of the Rev­enue’s Of­fice. The move is a first for the two con­sti­tu­tional of­fices in King Wil­liam.

Dur­ing the board’s July public com­ment pe­riod, King Wil­liam res­i­dent Ja­cob Levy dis­cussed his con­cerns with delin­quent taxes and­his strug­gle with the Trea­surer’s Of­fice.

While Levy said he fell in love with a fixer-up­per home in the county, he worried the ad­ja­cent, ne­glected lot would hurt his prop­erty value.

When he spoke with Trea­surer Harry Whitt, he said he was as­sured the prop­erty would be sent to col­lec­tions and auc­tioned off. So he pur­chased the home. Now, af­ter nearly five years, he is still ask­ing the of­fice to send it to col­lec­tions.

“We’ve done ex­pen­sive re­pairs to our home, we’re ac­tive in the com­munity, pay taxes on our home on time, ac­tively vote and par­take in com­munity cleanups,” Levy said at the meet­ing. “Ev­ery 30 to 60 days I fol­low up with the Trea­surer’s Of­fice and in short, still noth­ing.”

Levy’s neigh­bor, the owner of the prop­erty, died at least 30 years ago, ac­cord­ing to Hub­bard. For years, neigh­bors paid the prop­erty taxes in hopes of claim­ing the lot af­ter five years, fol­low­ing for­mer state codes.

Af­ter sev­eral years, neigh­bors quit pay­ing the taxes, so it has sat for years, with no taxes be­ing paid on the prop­erty. Af­ter sev­eral un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts to get the prop­erty to auc­tion through the Trea­surer’s Of­fice, Levy ad­dressed the is­sue with the Board of Su­per­vi­sors in July.

While Whitt said he hasn’t sent prop­er­ties to auc­tion or to col­lec­tions be­cause the county can still make money from the penal­ties and in­ter­est, Levy said by wait­ing, the county is not col­lect­ing any rev­enue.

“If this is done with 25% of the nearly 400 lots that are delin­quent, wouldn’t that help with the bud­get when last meet­ing there was a lot of talk of fi­nan­cial short­com­ings for the county?” Levy asked at the meet­ing.

Levy also said that not col­lect­ing taxes sends the wrong mes­sage to cit­i­zens and will in­evitably hurt their prop­erty value.

“With­out ever sell­ing th­ese prop­er­ties, you’re also en­cour­ag­ing your res­i­dents to not pay your taxes or pay when­ever you feel like it, which I do not be­lieve is a prece­dent you want to set,” Levy said. “I un­der­stand it’s about dol­lars and cents for the county, but it’s more than that for the res­i­dents. A lot of th­ese di­lap­i­dated prop­er­ties cause de­pre­ci­a­tion.”

Hub­bard reached out to Su­per­vi­sor Ed Moren in May.

“What pos­si­ble rea­son does the county have for not re­quir­ing taxes to be paid? I’m think­ing that as more res­i­dents re­al­ize you have an op­tion to pay taxes or not, this will be­come a huge is­sue. Why not nip it in the bud be­fore it gets worse?” Hub­bard said in a May 4 email to Moren.

Mo rent hen reached out to County Ad­min­is­tra­tor Bob­bie Tassi­nari ask­ing if she could look into the mat­ter.

“How would you rec­om­mend ap­proach­ing the Trea­surer’s or the Com­mis­sioner of Rev­enue’s of­fice on this and other sim­i­lar prop­er­ties for which I’ve re­ceived emails for? Won­der­ing how preva­lent is this through­out the county and how should we at­tempt to re­solve?” Moren said in an email to Tassi­nari on May 5.

On May 11, Tassi­nari said she re­quested a re­port on all the delin­quent prop­er­ties and out­stand­ing bal­ances, and for Trea­surer Whitt to pro­vide an ex­pla­na­tion on his pro­ce­dures and meth­ods.

Whitt ad­dressed the Board of Su­per­vi­sors at its June meet­ing.

“You can turn it over to an at­tor­ney, but I do it on a case-by-case ba­sis,” Whitt said of the delin­quent prop­er­ties in pre­vi­ous re­port­ing. “You get more penal­ties and in­ter­est.”

But Hub­bard and Levy weren’t sat­is­fied with Whitt’s re­sponse.

“He has said that the county makes more money by charg­ing in­ter­est and penalty fees for peo­ple that don’t pay. He said where else can you in­vest money and get 10% ev­ery year guar­an­teed?” Hub­bard­said. “He’s right. It’s a great in­vest­ment. But, if you never get the money, you’re like, wait a minute, this only makes sense to a point.”

In mid-June, the county, un­der ad­vise­ment from Tassi­nari and County At­tor­ney An­drew McRoberts, be­gan a fi­nan­cial probe of the two of­fices.

In its ini­tial find­ings, the county found the Trea­surer’s Of­fice has not col­lected $2 mil­lion in delin­quent prop­erty taxes on 400 prop­er­ties dat­ing back 30 years.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Tassi­nari or­dered per­for­mance au­dits on the con­sti­tu­tional of­fices. Tassi­nari pre­sented the Trea­surer’s Of­fice’s pre­lim­i­naryau­dit re­port at the Board of Su­per­vi­sors’ Au­gust meet­ing.

The pre­lim­i­nary au­dit, con­ducted by Robinson, Farmer, Cox and As­so­ciates, found 21 prob­lem ar­eas in­clud­ing poor book­keep­ing, sev­eral bank ac­counts open at sev­eral banks and im­proper tax col­lec­tion.

Whitt, who was not avail­able Tues­day for com­ment, said pre­vi­ously it was un­fair to re­lease the per­for­mance au­dit be­fore the full re­port.

“Well, an­other thing, pre­lim­i­nary au­dits shouldn’t never be re­leased to any­body be­fore the fi­nal au­dit comes out,” Whitt said in a phone in­ter­view. “I didn’t have to agree to it. I could’ve told them, ‘No, you’re not go­ing to do it,’ but that’ll make you look bad.”

The county is con­tin­u­ing its in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Com­mis­sioner of the Rev­enue Sally Pearson re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in the au­dit on­her of­fice, so the com­pany will con­tinue its per­for­mance au­dit un­der a lim­ited scope.

“I am de­clin­ing an ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity,” Pearson, who was not avail­able for com­ment Tues­day, stated in a Sept. 2 email sent to county Fi­nance Direc­tor Natasha Jo­ran­lien. “To use more tax­payer dol­lars to have the out­side au­di­tors re­peat their ef­forts in hopes of find­ing some­thing the cur­rent County Ad­min­is­tra­tor could cast neg­a­tiv­ity on, is not only use­less and a waste of tax payer dol­lars, it’s an abuse of power.”

The pre­lim­i­nary au­dit for the com­mis­sioner of rev­enue’s of­fice will be pre­sented at 7 p.m. Sept. 28 dur­ing the Board of Su­per­vi­sors meet­ing at 180 Horse Land­ing Road. The full au­dit on both of­fices will be pre­sented in Oc­to­ber.

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