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Commissioners don’t want tax digest problems next year

On the heels of a flawed tax digest and delay in being able to mail tax notices, Grady County commissioners sat down to discuss these issues with the board of assessors Tuesday morning.
Assessors Susan Bennett, Wednesdee Sadler and Julian Rawls appeared before the board to answer any questions from the board.
“What are we looking at for next year on the digest? Will it be on time? Do you need help on reevaluations? Just give us a general overview of what is going on in your office,” Chairman Bobby Burns commented.
Chief Appraiser Bennett told commissioners that if the General Assembly does not change state law in the middle of the year and make it retroactive, there should not be a problem in 2010.
Chairman Burns asked how other Georgia counties could adapt to the new state law and mail tax notices as much as a month earlier than Grady County.
“They probably did not follow the letter of the law,” Mrs. Bennett replied. She went on to say that when she learned of the new law in May, the board of assessors had two choices: redo the work already done, or to go with the work that had already been done.
However, some changes her office had made in the digest were allowable under the new law and others were not.
“We had to look at everything to follow the letter of the law and that is what Grady County did,” Mrs. Bennett said.
“So, are you saying that when you learned of the changes in May you anticipated being late? Could we have been informed before the last minute?” Vice Chairman Al Ball asked.
Mrs. Bennett said she met with the board in July and explained the situation and her need to maintain two separate sets of records.
“And by that communication we should have know the digest would have been late?” Ball asked.
“I believe I told y’all I couldn’t tell you when we would finish. It’s not like we could just use the same values as last year. If we had done that, you would have had no new splits, no new construction. The work had to be done over unless we went with what we already had done,” Mrs.  Bennett said.
Assessor Julian Rawls said that the digests submitted by Thomas and Mitchell counties are “not up to par.” He also said that other counties in the state mailed out notices even later than Grady County.
“Heck, there were problems across the state,” Rawls added.
Mrs. Bennett said the state was aware that certain counties went with the digest they had, but she did not believe the Department of Revenue was going to actually enforce sanctions against them.
“What could happen is some taxpayer group gets wind of it and finds out what was done and you could have serious problems at that point. We printed an assessment list with every change and went through them individually to determine if they were allowable or unallowable changes, and then we adjusted the digest accordingly,” she said.
“So you are saying with no changes from the state you will not be late at all next year?” Commissioner Elwyn Childs asked.
“I don’t see why we would be. We haven’t had this problem until this year, and the state made it retroactive to Jan. 1 when normally changes do not go into effect until the following Jan. 1,” Mrs. Bennett said.
Commissioner Charles Norton took issue with Mrs. Bennett’s claim that the digest had never been late before.
“By state law the digest is to be submitted to the board of commissioners by July 1 and sent to the state by August 1. We haven’t had a digest by July 1 in the 13 years I’ve been on the board. Is your software hindering you or are other things?” Norton asked.
The county’s chief appraiser said her software vendor is scrambling to make changes just as boards of assessors across the state are.
“The delay this year was the assessment notices going out late. We asked for the digest to be complete by September 21. It wasn’t, and the assessment notices hadn’t even been sent out then. You can’t juggle dates. The dates tell the truth,” County Administrator Rusty Moye stated.
Administrator Moye also told the board that Vicki Lambert, director of the local government services division of the Georgia Department of Revenue, has advised county officials that she would not approve any future extensions for submitting the county’s tax digest to the state.
“I am only telling you what I have been told, but she said we should have done a better job interpreting the law earlier and doing what should have been done. If we had been on the state’s software program, they would have helped us through the process and we would have gotten the digest on time,” Moye said.
Commissioner Charles Renaud asked what was the cost of converting to the state’s software program, known as WinGAP.
According to Mrs. Bennett, there would be a one-time conversion charge of $3,607.50. However, she says the structure sketches that are a part of her records can not be automatically integrated into the state system.
“There are over 10,000 sketches that would have to be done manually,” Mrs. Bennett said.
However, the expense for the software subscription and maintenance for the current software vendor is approximately $10,000 a year, compared to the state fee of $1,000 a year.
County Administrator Moye told commissioners that problems with the software prevented Mrs. Bennett from being able to produce the digest by the deadline the board established in July.
Mrs. Bennett admitted that there were some problems with the conversions for the future year digest and the frozen year.
“You keep hanging your hat on the problem being you having to redo things, but the fact of the matter is that the software was not ready to run until after our Sept. 21 deadline,” Moye stated.
Mrs. Bennett told commissioners that Decatur, Mitchell and Seminole counties use the same software program, but after questioning by commissioners she admitted the majority of the counties in the state had converted to the state’s software.
WinGAP is the primary appraisal software used in Georgia with over 130 of the 159 counties in the state utilizing the software.
“I am not opposed to WinGAP, but it will take a lot of work to convert, and I don’t want to get into a situation and not have the digest ready and get hammered. Those sketches have to be transferred manually. You can’t just pop a disc in there and download them and everything come out nice and pretty,” she said.
During the discussion of the time and expense involved in converting to the state system, Southwest Georgia Regional Commission Executive Director Dan Bollinger commented that his staff could assist the county with such a project and would eliminate the need for the county to hire additional personnel.
Commissioner Norton reminded Bollinger that it is already December and the county only has about seven months to have the digest completed for 2010.
“I would put the manpower on it necessary to gear up and get it done,” Bollinger said, adding that he would like to have the opportunity to meet with Mrs. Bennett and learn more about the work necessary to assist with the conversion.
Chairman Burns recommended the topic of software conversion be placed on the Dec. 17 work session agenda and requested that the board of assessors and personnel from the Regional Commission be invited to participate in the ongoing discussion.

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