Cindy Cottle and others in the Sampson County Tax Office have been working 12-hour days this week, and she hopes that Thursday’s might be the last for a while.
The county’s assistant tax administrator, Cottle said local property owners have already been calling the office inquiring about their tax bills. Since the 2014-15 budget was adopted Monday night, and the new tax rate — at 83 cents per $100 valuation, up from 78.5 cents — was set, Cottle and others have worked around the clock trying to compile all the information needed for the vendor, SouthData Inc. of Mt. Airy.
In all, it’s about a two-week process from the time a tax rate is set. Little can be done before then.
“They’re already calling wanting to know where their bills are,” Cottle, who has stacks of spreadsheets covering nearly every inch of her desk, said Wednesday. “We’re the go-between between the commissioners and the taxpayers. We’re trying to make everybody happy.”
Annual tax settlement and necessary collections cannot be accomplished without an adopted tax rate for the coming year. The longer it takes to approve a budget, the less time available for early-payment discounts, Tax administrator Jim Johnson warned commissioners last week.
When the budget was adopted Monday, Tax Office personnel immediately got to work.
“We started Tuesday morning trying to get everything together to get the information sent to the vendor,” Johnson pointed out. “It typically is about a two-week process once we get the tax rates in the system and do what we have to do to get the file ready.”
Once all the information is sent to SouthData, the company prepares a few samples for the Tax Office’s review to ensure everything looks right. Cottle and Johnson said they hope to start sending all tax notices out by the end of next week, but that is an optimistic timeline.
“The (early payment) discount is only the month of August. That cannot be adjusted. We try to have them in the mailboxes by Aug. 1 so taxpayers have the full 30 days to pay the bills with the discount figure,” Johnson attested.
That won’t happen this year.
“If they approve the budget by July 1, we have plenty of time. We normally like to mail them the last two or three days in July so they have the entire month of August,” Johnson said. “With it being delayed this year, obviously that’s not going to happen. It’s possible we might get it a day or two ahead of time, but more than likely it’s two weeks (from tax rate being set). Best-case scenario, we’re looking at the end of next week or, more than likely, the first of the following week — the week of the 11th.”
The silver lining, said Cottle, is that many counties adopted their tax rates a month ago, so Sampson’s delay means SouthData is no longer in the midst of its busy time.
In all, the county will send out about 60,000 tax bills, including real and personal property. Taxes are due Sept. 1, but bills can be paid up to Jan. 5 the following year without interest. Forced collections take place after that date.
“The end of last fiscal year, excluding motor vehicles, we had about $28.8 million in personal and real property — that was the levy,” said Johnson, noting that monthly motor vehicle tax collections and prior year taxes boost that total.
A staggering number of taxpayers take advantage of the early payment discount.
Johnson noted that approximately $300,000 was “written off” as part of the 2 percent discount last year — the amount saved by taxpayers. “That actually ended up being about 40 percent of the total levy,” he said. “It was a pretty good chunk. It’s usually anywhere between 35 to 40 percent.”
According to General Statute, after July 1 and before being charged with collection of taxes for the current fiscal year, a preliminary report on the previous fiscal year — the annual tax settlement — must be reported to the governing board.
As of June 30, including county tax, fire districts, school tax, city tax, penalties and advertising costs, $1,137,621.20 in real property, $57,111.70 in personal property and $313,088.56 in motor vehicles was still outstanding, for a total of $1,507,821.46.
“By way of comparison, last year’s figure was $1,961,509.06. (This year’s) is a reduction of about $453,000 from last year. The tax collection rate has increased from 95 percent to 96.14 percent,” Johnson stated.
During last week’s budget voting confusion, the Board of Commissioners charged Johnson with collecting taxes after a budget ordinance was initially adopted. However, Johnson expects to again be formally charged to collect taxes at the board’s regular meeting this Monday, Aug. 4.
Following a unanimous vote for the 2014-15 budget, Commissioner Albert Kirby also made a motion to explore business tax audits as a way of enhancing county revenue and ensuring all were taxed fairly. It passed 4-1.
On Wednesday, Johnson said he saw a number of positives in conducting the audits, including accountability and fairness across the tax base.
“I really don’t see a downside to doing the audit. It’s more or less trying to create equity in the tax base,” the tax administrator said. “Revenue is great and that is one thing, but just as important to me is, if somebody is not listing properly, to create fairness across your tax base. That’s the most important thing with an audit. I would say the large majority of the counties are doing business audits.”
Kirby said the audits could serve as a way to find additional revenue that already exists without implementing future tax hikes.
According to the newly-released 2014-15 Tax Rate Survey of North Carolina Counties, Sampson’s new 83 cents per $100 valuation property tax rate puts it in the top 10 highest rates in the entire state.
For 2013-14, Sampson’s 78.5 cent ranked 17th highest.
As part of the annual study, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners collected data on county tax rates across the state. The organization found that nearly three-quarters of counties adopted the same property tax rate as the previous year or the revenue neutral rate, 19 experienced a tax increase and six counties were able to cut their rate.
Sampson was one of the 19 counties that had a tax hike and one of just three that operated under an interim budget, according to the NCACC.
Updated statistics show that Scotland County’s property tax rate, at $1.03 per $100 valuation, is the highest by far. Northampton stands at 92 cents. Edgecombe (89.5), Orange (87.8), Franklin (87.25), Gaston (87), Bertie (84), Hertford (84) and Lenoir (83.5) come next, with Sampson and Granville, each at 83 cents, rounding out the top 10.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-249-4616. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.