Richmond County property tax bills will be at least three weeks late this year - possibly later - because of ongoing computer problems in the assessor's office.
The delay could force the school board and possibly the city to borrow money to meet expenses until the tax money starts coming in - a costly measure that taxpayers will end up paying for, officials say.
The bills, usually in the mail by mid- to late September, will be mailed about Oct. 20, with a due date five days before Christmas - if there are no major snags.
Jack McAdams, chief financial officer for the Richmond County Tax Commission, said he had expected state approval of the county's tax digest by Friday.
"Generally, it takes about three weeks after that to get the bills out," he said.
But Friday came and went without the state Revenue Department's approval, according to the city's chief tax appraiser, Sonny Reece.
Augusta officials said they hope to meet any cash-flow problems without borrowing money to meet monthly government expenses but might have to dip into investments.
"I'm very hopeful we will not have to issue any tax anticipation notes, but until I know the actual delay in getting the bills out and starting to collect the money, I really can't say yes or no," said Lon Morrey, Augusta comptroller. "One of our major sources of income are our property taxes, and the longer those bills are delayed in going out, the later the tax commission is going to start getting payments in."
Mr. Morrey has done some preliminary calculations and said he thinks the city has sufficient cash reserves to carry it through.
"But that is going to depend on when the money actually starts to come in," he said.
Richmond County school broad comptroller Gene Spires said the school board might have to issue tax anticipation notes - a form of short-term borrowing - because the tax bills are so late.
"All I can tell you at this point is, we're monitoring it and we may have to do it simply because this time it's gone a couple of months past where we usually start getting our tax money," Mr. Spires said. "And our fund balance has gotten down sort of low."
At the end of the 1999-2000 fiscal year on June 30, the school board's fund balance was $15 million, Mr. Spires said.
"Our rule of thumb has been to maintain one month worth of operation," he said. "We haven't been achieving that. We've actually been running a little short of that.
"Right now, one month of operation, based on a $194 million budget would be about $16 million, so we're a lot closer to it than we were. We do have large bills to pay every month."
The Georgia Department of Revenue approved Columbia County's tax digest in mid-August, and tax bills went out near Sept. 1, Chief Appraiser George Brown said.
Mr. Brown said issuing tax anticipation notes is an expensive, troublesome process.
"It's costly. It sure is," he said. "When you've got to go to some other source for money to operate your school system. Somebody's got to audit it, check it. These counties that are late getting their digests, it's not a laughing matter.
"And the state's not going to let us or any other county collect unless things are approved and right or arrangements made. And those arrangements that are different are costly above and beyond."
State law calls for counties to submit their tax digests to the Department of Revenue on Aug. 1, Mr. Reece said.
Richmond County's tax bill delay stems from a computer software system that had to be scrapped in January after two years and a cost of $225,019. The assessor's office installed new software, known as GAP, provided at no charge by the Revenue Department.
GAP was a system the city could have had all along, but it was rejected initially because the decision-makers believed it was inferior, said Clifford Rushton, director of the Information Technology Department.
The assessor's office has been working overtime to adjust the GAP system to meet Richmond County's needs, according to Mr. Reece.
"Unlike most counties in Georgia, the Richmond County assessor's office compiles the digest - not the tax commissioner's office - which meant the GAP system had to be expanded for Richmond," he said. "The GAP system does not produce a consolidated digest sheet. The Department of Revenue had to write a special program to produce a consolidated digest sheet."
The tax commissioner's office, which is responsible for printing and mailing the bills once the tax digest is approved, has a different software program. Officials say they hope there will be no major snags between the two.
"We ran the bills on this program last year," Mr. McAdams said. "Now there is the possibility that the data from the new system in the assessor's office might need a little work in order to produce accurate bills. I have begun testing. So far it looks like they are able to pass the information between the two systems, so I am anticipating Oct. 20 is a good date."
Richmond County expects to mail about 75,000 property tax bills this year, Mr. McAdams said.
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.
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