Taxes — it’s the buzzword of the moment for the Liberty County commissioners, who on Thursday received a report on current collections, new vehicle-tax laws and upcoming property-tax sales from Tax Commissioner Virgil Jones.
Because real and property taxes, which are declining, are the majority of the government’s revenue, the board has placed high emphasis on the matter as it will begin budget sessions for fiscal year 2014 in the coming months.
For the current tax year, Jones is at a collection rate of about 55.35 percent. He said he anticipates collections will increase once the deadline nears, as many property owners whose mortgage companies do not pay at the end of the calendar year tend to wait until the deadline hits.
From 2007 through 2011, there is $763,923 in uncollected taxes.
“As I explained to the BOC that uncollected number represents persons that just have not paid (that we are working on to collect), hardships, developments gone bad, bankruptcy, uncollectable mobile homes that are not here, personal property that is uncollected,” he wrote after the meeting. “Our collection efforts do not end and are ongoing daily.”
Jones said the greatest struggle is with collecting taxes on developments; information he provided shows the collection rate for 2011 is 96.73 percent and 98.14 percent for 2010. For those years, he did not differentiate between taxes owed by residents and taxes owed by commercial developers.
“Even in Liberty County here, we’ve had some developments sitting just stagnant for months if not more than a year now,” Jones said. “Prime example: 15th Street Independence project. I’m working with those developers; I’m working with banks, and banks are struggling to loan money to developers who are now being pursued by tax commissioners. It’s a tough time.”
While there still are individual property owners struggling to pay their taxes, the greatest dollar amount of unpaid taxes lies with developments, he added.
“We’ve had some counties where they actually try to take whole developments to tax sales, and they feel that is the answer. You know, we hold tax sales; we have one scheduled in March, one in April, one in July — but it’s not always the answer. It’s our last resort.”
Taking an entire development to sale is not the best option because few buyers are in a position to purchase an entire development — “there’s nobody there to buy it … so now they’re finding it more feasible to work with the taxpayer,” Jones said.
There are five tax sales scheduled for 2013, he said.
In other tax-related matters, County Administrator Joey Brown told the board it will hear four tax-refund requests March 21.
Requesting refunds are Debra Dykes, who said she was overcharged by $500,000 plus late fees and interest between 2008 and 2011 on a Hall Street parcel; the Liberty County Development Authority, requesting refund of taxes paid related to the Bioagra default; Becky Durden, seeking $2,373.93 after citing a clerical error; and the Holiday Inn Express, seeking return of $42,466 citing a clerical error that dates back several years.
According to the refund documents provided by the county, Jones and Chief Appraiser Glenda Roberts disagree with refunding taxes in all four scenarios.
County Attorney Kelly Davis provided commissioners with an overview of the law that governs tax returns in advance of the hearing. He explained that grounds for granting refunds are narrow and typically require proof of a legal error or that notice was sent to the wrong taxpayer.
In other news Thursday, the BoC also:
• approved workers’ compensation coverage for 15 volunteer firefighters at the county-owned Gum Branch fire station at a cost of $132 per year, per person, for a total of $1,980.
• passed a resolution authorizing an equipment lease-purchase agreement approved in its last meeting.
• approved a resolution requiring attorneys to reimburse the Liberty County Clerk of Courts and/or sheriff’s office after-hours use of the justice center requires security personnel to remain on the clock longer.
• went into executive session for counsel with attorney and to discuss land acquisition. The board did not take action upon re-adjourning.