County To Stop Throwing Good Money After Bad Taxpayers
Guilford County is about to dramatically curtail its efforts to shame the county’s delinquent taxpayers into paying their property taxes – largely because county officials believe that trying to embarrass people into forking over their back taxes is a costly method that doesn’t work.
Most citizens are aware that, each year, the Guilford County Tax Department publishes a list in area newspapers of those people and companies who are delinquent on their Guilford County property taxes – with the hope that the public shaming will cause them to pay their taxes. However, at a Monday, Feb. 3, Guilford County Tax Committee meeting, the committee decided unanimously to recommend to the Board of Commissioners that the county cease its current process of widely publicizing the names, and instead do the bare minimum required by law.
State statute requires the county publish the names in at least one general purpose publication with paid subscribers, but the county can meet those requirements without spending near the amount of money it has in years past, and, starting this year, the county commissioners are looking to find a single provider of that service. Since most county officials seem to feel as though the program doesn’t really help the county collect the taxes in the first place, they see any money not spent on the effort as pure savings.
In fiscal 2012-2013, Guilford County spent nearly $98,000 to list the names in the News & Record, the High Point Enterprise and the Carolina Peacemaker. The lion’s share of that money went to the News & Record, which got $80,336 from the county to publish the list. (Since the Rhino Times is a free publication, publishing the names in the Rhino wouldn’t meet the legal requirements set by the state.)
In 2011-2012, the county paid $107,539 to advertise the names of delinquent taxpayers and the amount they owe and, in 2010-2011, that number was $78,540.
Last month the Guilford County Tax Department sent out about 27,000 delinquent notices and the department estimates are that it will advertise about 14,000 names this March.
About $14.5 million in taxes levied in 2013 were delinquent as of mid-January.
Last year, a bill was introduced in the state Senate by District 27 Sen. Trudy Wade that would have allowed counties in North Carolina to cease advertising the names of delinquent taxpayers in print publications, and instead let the counties meet the requirement by placing the list on county web pages. However, that bill didn’t pass, so the Tax Committee, it its Feb. 3 discussion, tried to find the best way to minimize the financial burden of the existing law on the county.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Bill Bencini is also chairman of the Tax Committee, which includes Commissioners Bruce Davis, Jeff Phillips and Hank Henning.
Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis told the commissioners there was no evidence the mass advertisements of names is effective in getting people to pay up.
“There’s no guarantee we’ll recover the advertising cost,” Chavis said.
Chavis said that from the studies he’s read as well as from his personal experience, putting the names out there for the public to see doesn’t really do much good.
Bencini also said he didn’t think advertising the names got people to pay up. He said that, from everything he can tell, people don’t care anymore.
“It’s harder to embarrass people I think,” Bencini said.
Davis went further. He said he thinks some property owners actually like seeing their names in the paper.
“For some people, it’s a badge of honor,” Davis said. “It lets folks know, ‘I’ve got some property.’”
Bencini said it reminded him of the old adage that all publicity is good publicity.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said the rule isn’t a good one for everyone.
“It only works for rock stars – I’m not so sure about politicians,” Payne said.
Henning asked if the legal requirement for advertising the names would be met by putting the names in a monthly flyer with very few paid subscribers.
Payne said, “It’s got to be broad-based; if you’re in the Southeast Shopper and you’ve got two subscribers, probably not.”
The county attorney said that if the county did decide to put out bids to find the cheapest provider of the service, it should ask for the newspapers’ circulation numbers so that the county would could tell if that publication met the basic requirements.
According to Payne, there’s some room for legal interpretation as to what meets the state requirement, but he added that, if the county tried simply placing the names in an obscure publication with minimal readership, the county might be found to be in violation of the statutory requirements.
The committee members seemed to agree that the county’s main goal should be to meet the legal requirements and not go beyond that minimum effort.
Phillips said he wondered why it has taken so long for commissioners and other county officials to have this discussion, which could clearly save the county money.
“I’m fascinated by the fact that there’s never been an in-depth conversation like we’re having now,” Phillips said.
Payne said he felt compelled to inform the committee of one interesting legal tidbit regarding the county’s adhering to the state requirements.
“There’s not really a penalty if you don’t,” he said.
There was some chuckling on that revelation, but Bencini said it would still be a good idea for Guilford County to adhere to the law whether there’s a penalty or not.
“We are all sworn to uphold the law,” Bencini said.
Henning joked, “I make a motion to formally circumvent the law.”
Payne responded, “I’m just saying …”
The committee voted unanimously to recommend that the Board of Commissioners put out a request for bids to find a single newspaper that will provide the county with the best rate. The board is expected to go along with the decision when that motion is made in the coming weeks.
BY Scott D. Yost
February 6, 2014
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