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Tax admin: Need to maintain staff to remain efficient

Chris Berendt Staff Writer

December 26, 2013

A software system overhaul at the Sampson County Tax Office is expected to move the department forward more efficiently, with no new expenditures for the foreseeable future, but it will likely not translate into staffing savings for an already understaffed department.


That was tax administrator Jim Johnson’s message to the Board of Commissioners during a recent special budget session. It was anticipated that the new tax software, at a $600,000 expense over the past three years, would mean a leaner Tax Office in terms of employees.


The tax software upgrade, designed to improve productivity and customer service, is in its final stages. It was implemented in an effort to enhance revenue collection, increase Tax Office efficiency and correct duplicate data entry and errors within the Tax Office’s antiquated system, county staff has said. They said that without double-entry, steps could be cut out and improvements already made, such as the Geographic Information System, could be built upon.


Johnson said to keep the office running smoothly, especially during the transition, it is vital that the department maintain its staffing level. It is a level that should actually be higher, he noted.


Throughout the budget sessions, department heads have been asked to acquire some comparative data in regard to staffing, salaries and budgets. Johnson chose neighboring Duplin.


The total operating budget for the Sampson Tax Office budget is $1.2 million compared to $1 million in Duplin. There are approximately 48,000 parcels in Sampson and 39,000 in Duplin, whose tax offices have 18 and 16 employees, respectively. That equates to 2,667 parcels per employee for Sampson and 2,438 parcels for each Duplin employee, Johnson pointed out.


“Two major differences I first noticed when comparing the operating budgets stand out. The Sampson County Tax Office budget includes $101,000 for software (and) the Sampson County Tax Office budget for health insurance is $100,000 higher than Duplin County,” said Johnson.


The purchase of CAMA (computer-assisted mass appraisal) software from Tyler Technologies was approved last year at an annual cost of $101,000 for six years, with the conversion beginning shortly thereafter. The board voted to set aside money to fund the needed software in 2011, budgeting $200,000 in the 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14 to pay for the roughly $600,000 overhaul.


“I know a lot has been said about staffing numbers,” Johnson said. “Staffing numbers of tax offices are typically compared by the number of parcels per employee. Using Duplin County’s 2,438 parcels per employee as a guide the Sampson County Tax Office should have 20 employees. We do have 20 positions allotted to us, but now with only 18 funded, we’re two short based on those numbers.”


Johnson said those two positions have been frozen for “quite some time … way before” Johnson became the county’s tax assessor. One position was frozen at least five or six years ago, and the other prior to that, he noted.


“Based on those numbers, we’re already operating with less number of employees than we should be,” Johnson said.


In addition to bringing more staff efficiency, the software also has allowed for those real-time tax updates and years of property records to be put out for public consumption, as well as the implementation of a soil classification system by which land assessment disputes may be curbed. Some local farmers shared concerns with a property valuation system they believed overvalued their land.


Commissioner Albert Kirby said he thought that would be a great benefit, but was also under the impression there would be options to, with a new technology, slim down staffing and consolidate duties within the tax department.


“I thought that the new computer software would somehow eliminate the need for the staffing level that we had,” said Kirby. “My thought was that in some way as we became more technologically efficient, then the need for physical manpower would be reduced. To what extent do you see the new software, when it’s fully implemented, taking away the need to actually increase the number of employees?”


Johnson said he did not see how the department could reduce staffing and maintain an increased efficiency.


“I don’t see that we need to add any employees right now but certainly, operating with those numbers, I don’t see where we could actually cut any more additional positions, already being understaffed as we are,” said Johnson. “I really don’t see at this point in time where (the new software) is actually going to cut out any staff.”


“What I guess I was thinking is that I was hoping that would’ve been the end result,” Kirby said. “It seems to me that with the old two systems the way they were set up, there were more steps involved and the systems weren’t really integrated.”


Johnson said, while the double-entry has been eliminated and those issues shored up in favor of one system, the tax office has also set out to update records much quicker.


“We’re doing that within a two-week period, where before we were going three or four months before records were updated and transferred,” Johnson said. “We have become more efficient. But if we were to cut (staff) numbers, as far as our transfers, I don’t know if we’d get them done any faster.”


Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at cberendt@civitasmedia.com.