If you haven't paid your 2003 Richmond County tax bill and think maybe the tax office has forgotten about it, think again. Legal proceedings are forthcoming.
Exactly when is anybody's guess, because once again some computers at city hall aren't talking to one another. This time it's the systems in the Tax Assessor's and Superior Court clerk's offices, and that's a big problem because of a change in the way the state requires notices of "fi fa" to be entered on the court docket, said Jerry Thompson, the deputy ex officio sheriff in the delinquent tax office.
A "fi fa" records a tax lien on all the delinquent taxpayer's property and assets in Superior Court. The term is short for the Latin phrase fieri facias, which means "cause (it) to be done."
The assessor's office documents are not in the format the state requires, Mr. Thompson said.
Because of that, information from the assessor's office won't enter electronically into the clerk of court's computer system, in some cases because a name might be missing a comma or a first or last name is out of order. And if the problem can't be worked out, about 6,000 delinquent accounts - or $5.2 million in taxes - will have to be filed manually, Mr. Thompson said.
Richmond County's tax collection process was hampered between 1997 and 2002 by computer software problems that prevented the Tax Commissioner's Office, which collects taxes, and the Tax Assessor's Office, which compiles tax information and tracks ownership, from interfacing.
Those problems have been resolved, tax officials said.
Meanwhile, $5.2 million of the $101 million in real estate and business personal property billed last year is still outstanding, according to the tax commissioner's records. Of that amount, $574,617 is for garbage fees, which are included on property tax bills.
Some entities with the largest unpaid bills have gone bankrupt. W.R. Grace & Co. went bankrupt owing taxes totaling $456,860. Others are no longer in business, while others have left town.
Four Augusta nursing homes that have filed for bankruptcy since 2002 owed a total of $84,938 in property taxes.
People gave different reasons Friday for why they hadn't paid their city taxes. Some said they never received a letter. Some blamed errors in their accounting departments. Others said business had been down since Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's definitely not the case that I've received a $12,000 bill that I haven't paid," said Peter Knox, the owner of the D. Timm's restaurant building in downtown Augusta. D. Timm LLC was on the city's list of delinquent taxes for $12,815, but within an hour of being told of his bill by The Augusta Chronicle on Friday, Mr. Knox paid it. Mr. Thompson said a letter might not reach some businesses if they move, because a change of address filed with the post office is good for only six months. Mailings sent to an old address after that are not necessarily forwarded.
Eric Yu, a manager at Commercial and Military Systems on Mike Padgett Highway, said that his family's company is listed as owing taxes because of an accounting department error and that he would resolve the situation soon. The company is listed as owing $24,819 in real estate taxes and $49,750 in inventory and equipment taxes.
Kurt Eyrich, the owner of Augusta Millwork Inc. on Willis Drive, owned up to his unpaid bill and said it was basically a result of poor business after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Mr. Eyrich said his company works on large construction projects and until recently there hasn't been a great enough demand for such construction in Augusta.
"After Sept. 11, business went to the dogs, and we're just recovering," he said, noting that he expects to resolve his unpaid taxes in the next 90 days.
"We're doing well now. Things are starting to get back to where we can pay those taxes back."
Mr. Eyrich's company is listed by the city as owing $10,363.
Then there's Coca-Cola Bottling Co. on North Leg Road, which is listed as owing $56,949. A message left Friday with that company's public relations department wasn't immediately returned, and a secretary said no managers were available to discuss the issue.
Alternate Energy Resources, of Walden Drive, owes $29,196. A phone number listed for that business was not in service Friday.
McGowen Printing and Offset Co., of 11th Street, owes $99,844. A woman who answered the phone at the business said the owner was not in and no one else present was knowledgeable about the situation. McGowen and the Coca-Cola bottler are businesses that owe taxes and do business with the city, a practice Mayor Bob Young has tried to curtail. McGowen has done $22,163 worth of business so far this year for the city and $26,257 last year. The bottler did $67,166 worth of business last year and $23,295 this year. AT&T, which owes $22,422.75 in back taxes, also does business with the city, but the figure was not immediately available Friday.
Collecting late taxes isn't just an Augusta dilemma.
Mark Posey, Aiken County's delinquent-tax collector, said his county also has experienced more bankruptcies lately, contributing to a total of $10.2 million in delinquent taxes dating back 10 years.
"I've had a pretty good increase," he said, noting that bankruptcies have increased from about 500 a year two years ago to about 700 a year now. "A lot of that is they're filing (Chapter) 13 for reorganization."
Mr. Posey said a good percentage of the $10.2 million in delinquent accounts involve bankruptcies, and that figure includes taxes on real estate, personal property and furniture fixtures and business equipment.
In Columbia County, Tax Commissioner Kay Allen said her county has about $915,000 in outstanding levies since 1994.
"We have gone through a rash of bankruptcies," she said. "But more or less, they have now leveled off over here a little bit."
She said her county has $220,000 in delinquent accounts on the books now that are bankruptcy cases.
Richmond County Tax Commissioner Jerry Saul said there will always be outstanding accounts, but the county eventually will collect all of them except for the bankruptcies. Meanwhile, a 10 percent penalty and 1 percent interest a month is charged on all overdue bills.
A lien prevents a property owner from selling assets without paying the taxes and initiates a process that allows the government to recoup taxes by selling the property at an auction.
UNPAID REAL ESTATE TAXES
Delinquent Richmond County real estate tax accounts totaling more than $10,000:
Delinquent Richmond County business and personal property accounts totaling more than $10,000:
Reach Sylvia Cooper or Preston Sparks at (706) 724-0851.
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