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Wanted: High-tech tax update

A small paper mountain of unattended tax payments will delay proof for some Island County residents that they paid their property taxes.

Constant tax season phone calls have forced the county treasurer’s office to set aside thousands of property tax payments in a vault. The bills were due in the mail last Friday, but now sit unopened. So county taxpayers, mortgage companies, escrow and title companies must wait to officially write off the payment until someone in the department can open the payments and record them. That wait is also costing the county, since the money is not being invested in an interest-bearing account in a timely manner.

The key to cutting that pile of payments down to size — which would stand about 12 feet high if the bills were stacked vertically — may lie in the computers sitting on the desks of a number of county employees, the connections between those computers, or even in taxpayers’ access to the Internet.

On Sept. 27, Island County’s technology committee, which is made up of elected officials and department heads, submitted a proposal to the Board of Island County Commissioners to bring the county’s property tax system into the computer age. Based on their experience with lost staff time, difficult inter-departmental communication and a lack of audit trails, the committee recommended a study of the county’s hardware, software, and other high-tech components.

That study could lead to an outside contractor being hired to make changes in how information and tax statements are handled.

“Obviously there are enhancements that could be made to the system that

could make it work easier and more user friendly,” said county assessor Tom Baenen.

Without a study, Baenen said he did not know how much the work would cost

Changes cost money, though, and county commissioners Mike Shelton and Bill Byrd do assert that the county does have money problems. The board of commissioners must wrestle with a revenue shortfall of $150,000 this fall just to provide what county department heads say are basic services for 2005.

However, the commissioners are not against the idea of fixing up how the county deals with property tax receipts. Byrd, the board’s liasion to the technology committee, said a better system is needed.

Not making changes now will continue a “vicious cycle,” said Linda Riffe, the county’s treasurer. The cycle begins for the treasurer upstairs, in the assessor’s office.

“We are joined at the hip,” she said of the departments’ relationship.

Tom Baenen said public inquiries about land values and other requests have kept assessors from revaluing new construction and land value. the delay prevents them from meeting the state deadline of Oct. 15. Baenen said the treasurers’ office may not receive the revaluations until Nov. 15.

Already behind a full month, the treasurer’s office must also respond to tax adjustments from private citizens and mortgage companies. These and other delays, Riffe said, may delay first half tax statements until mid-March next year, which would be more than a month late. Taxpayers must pay first-half taxes by April 30.

To save time, Riffe and Baenen said posting secure information on-line would free up employees from answering phone calls. That’s because information — such as when taxes are paid — would be available on the Internet. Once that happens, then title companies — which Riffe said often call to find out whether a seller owns property — can check on line for the seller’s status. Changing software and hardware would permit a more consistent exchange of information and help ensure data is transmitted.

The county’s financial difficulties are acknowledged in the technology proposal. Baenen and Riffe said in the long run, however, not making changes could cost the county more.

For example, Baenen said if the county does not make changes, he may need to hire a new employee. Riffe said that may include handle data entry or another type of mundane work that software could do. If that person is paid $50,000 a year plus benefits, he or she would cost more than $200,000 over four years, Baenen said. By comparisson, the county may pay an initial cost of $150,000 for the new equipment and systems, but it would pay that back and save an additional $50,000 after four years, Baenen said.

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