01/13/09 — County tax collections on track

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County tax collections on track

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 13, 2009 1:46 PM

Wayne County tax officials say collections are on track with last year and that they hope to eventually equal or improve on last year's 97 percent collection rate.
As of last Tuesday, the collection rate was 77.87 percent compared to 77.07 percent for the same period last year, leading tax officials to say that the rate is pretty much even.
It will be closer to the end of the current fiscal year on June 30 before the final rate, expected to be about 97 percent, will be known.
"We did just over 97 percent last year," Tax Administrator David Ward said. "It is probably a little too early to tell, but we always are hoping to hit that or better.
"Being up by that percentage is always good to see, but until you get beyond Jan. 5, the last day to pay before the penalties start, you don't know and the fact that it has gone down to less than one percent does not surprise me."
"With the economy down and unemployment up, different items factor into this," said Alan Lumpkin, assistant tax administrator. "I'd say that by March or April we ought to have a better handle on it. We periodically check to see where we are and right now things look pretty consistent with last year."
Mortgage companies play a role in the rate, Ward said.
"A lot of the bigger mortgage companies have a lot of accounts and it just depends on when they send those in," Lumpkin said. "Sometimes they try to get them in during November. Sometimes it varies so trying to compare this November to last November it (mortgage company payments) may or may not have been here at that time so it is
hard to tell."
Still being processed are the taxes paid by mail and the contents of a lockbox at the tax office where people could drop off their payments while trying to beat last Monday's deadline.
Late tax payments are subject to a 2 percent penalty in January and an additional three-fourths of a percent for each additional month they are overdue. A listing of delinquent taxpayers is normally published in the newspaper in March.
The long lines that snaked out the door at the tax office are gone now that the payment deadline has passed. But another deadline, Feb. 2, is looming for listing personal and business property.
Tax officials don't expect the same long lines of people listing taxes.
"Most is done by mail. A few people actually come in. We mail abstracts out to people who listed last year so when they get that they just have to verify they still have the same property or bought anything or sold anything and send it back in," Lumpkin said. "The majority of listing is done by mail unless it is something new and they have to come up here for the first time."
The abstracts were mailed out Dec. 31, but already "quite a few" people have listed and returned their listing form through the mail, Ward said.
Listing continues through the end of the month and since the final day falls on a Saturday people have until Feb. 2 to list without having to worry about penalties.
In order to make the deadline, the listings must be in the tax office by 5 p.m. on Feb. 2. Listings that are mailed in must have a U.S. postmark showing they were mailed prior to the deadline. Office postmarks do not qualify.
Late filings are subject to a penalty of 10 percent of the taxes owed. For example, someone owing $100 in county taxes would have to pay $110. The penalty also applies to municipal taxes that are listed and paid at the same time.
Since all real estate in the county is permanently listed no listing has to be made unless the owner's address has changed or improvements or changes have been made to the property.
It is a Class 2 misdemeanor not to list taxes.
The lines that materialized during the last week for tax payments did not surprise Ward or Lumpkin.
"We expect every year on the last days to get long lines and it happens every year," Ward said. "I don't know that this year was any busier than the last one. It was about typical.
"I think we are getting more people who are starting to mail their taxes in as opposed to coming in the office and standing in line to pay."
It is a matter of convenience, he said.
Lumpkin agreed.
"I think we are gradually seeing more mail being used and we have dropboxes in the office or you can pay by credit card online," Lumpkin said. "I think more people are using those now. Even though the lines looked long that last week it was because of that last-week crunch.
"I think overall that people are using other options rather than come and stand in line. But we just have some people who want to come into the office, make their payment and get their receipt. I think it is a sign of the times and like David said it is just more convenient and less time consuming than having to come out here and stand in line. People are just trying to speed up the process."
Ward said people were paying their taxes on time despite the weak economy.
"A lot of folks who are going to pay timely and normally pay timely and are usually very conscientious and no matter what their circumstances they usually budget or do whatever it takes to pay their bills including their property taxes," Ward said.
Yet, some of those same people wait to pay their vehicle property tax until it is delinquent, the two men said. Some don't pay until they have to do so in order to renew their vehicle tags.
Ward said he did not know exactly how much money is involved, but that it is a "considerable" amount of revenue and leads to a collection rate of only 86-87 percent of vehicle property tax.
"For whatever reason, we have found that people who will pay their annual property tax bill, whether it be real estate or personal property, on time, but on vehicles a lot of people will wait until it becomes delinquent before they pay and sometimes wait even longer," Ward said.
The vehicle tax is "a little different animal," Lumpkin said. There can be about a three-month "lag time" between the time a person gets a new tag and when they receive a tax bill.
"If they don't pay their bill we block the tags so they cannot renew them, but that doesn't bother them to the next year when they go to get their tags," Lumpkin said. "That is when they come and want to pay their taxes so they can go get their tags."
A new law that goes into effect in 2010-11 is designed to stop that practice.
"When they (state) send your renewal in the mail it will have a tax bill in there and you will actually pay that tax bill along with your renewal fee," Lumpkin said. "So theoretically, we will have a 100 percent collection rate, hopefully. I am sure there will be some quirks, but it will be a better way."