Liens aim to collect back taxes

Some officials trying to pay overdue bills

For those late paying taxes, don't feel alone.

 

It's almost time for Augusta's 2010 bills to go out, and a state legislator and a school board member are just now settling last year's balances due. Both Rep. Wayne Howard and Frank Dolan had liens placed on them by the Tax Commissioner's office, and both paid them off shortly after being contacted by The Augusta Chronicle last week.

"I was completely unaware of this, until you called me," said Dolan, who had already paid $27,600 in property and business taxes on his home and golf cart accessories company, but still owed $152 in late charges and $220 in taxes and penalties on a 15-foot skiff boat.

Howard, D-Augusta, was late paying the $1,057 bill on the Howard's Upholstery building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where he's the owner and operator of his family's furniture re-upholstery business and Uniformals Unlimited uniform supply.

In July, $700 was paid toward the balance, and with interest, fees and the penalty, he still owed $630.

"I had no idea a lien had been placed on me," Howard said Friday morning. "We'll take care of it."

Early that afternoon, he called back to say his brother finished paying the bill, although that couldn't be verified.

Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick said to check his Web site Saturday to confirm payment had been received, but Howard's account still shows $630 overdue.

UNPAID SUMS are part of the nearly $2.5 million that remains uncollected from 2009 taxes, which is about 1.7 percent of the total amount billed and slightly above expectations for this point in the year, Kendrick said.

Bill Bozarth, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia -- a nonprofit citizens' lobby group advocating government accountability -- said it's reasonable for taxpayers to expect those with a hand in setting millage rates and deciding how to spend proceeds to promptly pay their own bills.

The reality is, many people in office face the same financial struggles as their constituents, Bozarth said. So long as they're not flagrantly disregarding their obligations, letting taxes go unpaid for years, he sees room for understanding.

"There's a lot of people in the state House who have trouble paying their taxes," Bozarth said. "People who run for public office very often have this messiness in their lives."

Dolan said his overdue bills weren't about an inability to pay, but rather not knowing he had to. Within 15 minutes of taking a reporter's call Thursday, the school board District 7 representative rushed to the tax office and paid up, which tax office records reflect.

Given the amount he's already paid, he said, he certainly wasn't trying to beat the city out of a few hundred dollars.

He attributed the late charges, applied to the taxes on his Waverly subdivision home, to "lackadaisical record-keeping on my part." He said he didn't realize when he paid the base amount in December that he was a month late.

Dolan said he's flabbergasted that he owed any taxes on the boat. From 2005 to 2007, the city valued it at less than $7,500 and he didn't have to pay anything. He paid $141 when it was valued at $11,160 in 2008, then in 2009 it was valued at $9,985.

He said he'll be lodging a protest.

"I know a 10-year-old boat that's handmade is not worth $10,000," Dolan said.

HOWARD EXPLAINED that he doesn't handle the day-to-day details of his business, such as paying the property tax, but one of his brothers had worked out a payment plan with the tax office. The final installment being paid Friday had nothing to do with the call from the newspaper, he said.

He said he understands the expectation that elected officials be role models when it comes to paying tax bills, but economic times are tough, and sometimes a businessman has to do what he can to make things work financially, even if it means paying interest and penalties.

"The bottom line is to get it paid," Howard said.

The Tax Commissioner's lien isn't the only one on file against Howard at the Richmond County Clerk of Court's office. Another one filed by the Georgia Department of Revenue says his business owes $621.50 for failing to pay state sales taxes in March 2007.

Howard said he's been making payments against that balance, and if it isn't down to zero by now, it's close.

Another sitting member of Augusta's legislative delegation also has a judgment on file against him involving state taxes. In February, the revenue department re-filed a $2,485 lien on Rep. Earnie Smith, D-Augusta, for income taxes from calendar year 1998.

Smith said Friday that the matter has already been settled, that he doesn't owe the money because he left his job with the postal system two months into 1998 on disability, but for some reason the state didn't account for it.

If someone in his position is having these kinds of troubles with the revenue department, it's a good bet other Georgians are facing the same bureaucratic frustrations, Smith said. It might be something he'll take up in next year's General Assembly.

"One thing they are not is fast, when it comes to getting things off records and getting things satisfied," Smith said.

FOR BOTH Howard and Smith, such blemishes on their records can put them in the sights of the House Ethics Committee, leading to sanctions, including reprimands and expulsion. A law enacted last year requires the revenue commissioner to tell the House and Senate committees about any legislators who are delinquent on state taxes.

Probes have been launched, but so far meetings have been private and names kept secret. No one has been sanctioned, though some legislators have been asked to prove their problems are being resolved.

Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said he was aware of Howard's and Smith's issues, but he declined to speak to specifics.

Howard said his overdue balance hasn't come up in Atlanta. Smith said he's been talked to -- declining to say by whom -- but once he explained the situation, the matter was disposed of.

Both representatives, and Dolan, face no opposition in this year's elections.

A check of candidates in other races turned up only one with unpaid city taxes. Alan Tanner, the publisher of the South Augusta Sentinel newspaper and one of four men vying for the District 8 commission seat currently held by Jimmy Smith, owes $173 for the past two years' taxes on his mobile home off Forest Road.

THE PROPERTY, still in the name of Tanner's late mother, also is in arrears for 2008 and 2009 in the amount of $613. According to the tax office, it's slated for the public auction block in December.

Tanner said when he inherited the property, he also inherited back taxes. He said he's doing his best to catch up, having paid them through 2007, and he won't let the property be lost in a courthouse sale.

His financial problems shouldn't give voters pause about picking him in November, Tanner said.

"Because I want to get rid of property taxes," he said. "I'm in a position right now to say this is the problem: If you're struggling, they'll take your property away from you.

"That's my point. I'm struggling like everyone else."

Morris News Service reporter Walter C. Jones contributed to this article.

Uncollected taxes

Augusta Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick said he and his staff will be in Atlanta this week with the goal of getting the 2010 digest approved by the state Department of Revenue on Monday or Tuesday. Bills go out Sept. 10 and will be due Nov. 15.

As for 2009 taxes, 98.3 percent of the nearly $142 million billed has been collected, compared with 98.2 percent collected at this point last year. Penalties total $815,377 so far.

Property tax proceeds go to the school district, the city government and the state.

"What's happening is we're just more aggressive, and it's working," the commissioner said.

Some portion will be uncollectable because of bankruptcy filings and insolvency, or in cases where the city is moving to raze or sell properties because of owners' lack of interest, Kendrick said.

Augusta's overdue tax collections

Here's where the city stands on collecting past taxes:

 20092003-2009*
Total bills:91,157514,852
Total amount billed:$141,930,644.49$687,803,095.65
Yet to be collected:$2,458,885.63$2,277,742.56
Portion collected:98.3 percent99.7 percent

* As far back as delinquent taxes can be pursued because the statute of limitations on tax liens runs out after seven years.

Source: Richmond County Tax Commissioner's office

 

More