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Attorney probing tax waivers
Commission: Authority to grant expired in 2005
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Forsyth County News
Sitting in the county attorney’s office are four boxes filled with the files of every taxpayer who got a break on interest and penalties since Jan. 1, 2006.

Each waiver was approved by Tax Commissioner Matthew Ledbetter’s office, but due to an apparent oversight in policy, Ledbetter did not have the authority to grant the waivers.

Now each waiver must be ratified or refuted by the county’s board of commissioners in order to adhere to state law.

“I will provide the board a report that will include the owner, ID of the property and the stated rationale for the waiver, just so the board will be as fully equipped as they can be,” said County Attorney Ken Jarrard. “It will probably be a situation where they’ll be asked to look at them as a
whole, but it may be that the board wants to question a few of them.”

The law allows the county commission to grant waivers of interest and penalties incurred by taxpayers or to grant the tax commissioner the authority to do so on behalf of the commission.

Before Ledbetter began his term as tax commissioner Jan. 1, 2005, his predecessor, Joyce Pendley, was granted permission by a board resolution in 2003 and again in 2004 to waive penalties and interest on behalf of the commission board.

The last resolution was adopted Dec. 20, 2004, and expired Dec. 31, 2005. Ledbetter took office January 2005.

“A resolution that was adopted for this office prior to my arrival expired without my knowledge,” Ledbetter said. “I am not interested in accusing folks or placing blame, but [in] fixing this issue so we can continue to better serve the citizens of this county.”

Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse said Ledbetter was supposed to request permission for another resolution when the 2005 resolution expired.

“He never requested it,” Laughinghouse said. “In the past, the tax commissioner has come to the board and asked for the resolution ... we just don’t automatically do it.”

Laughinghouse said he didn’t know Ledbetter was issuing waivers until it was brought to his attention nearly three weeks ago through an e-mail.

Now, Laughinghouse said his main priority is making sure all the waivers have “been applied fairly.”

“If it had not been applied equally across the board, I would like to know why,” he said. “I’m going to give it some fairly close scrutiny.”

Jarrard said the board has the option to look at each property individually, but “I expect they will look at me for guidance on what action to take, and I will provide that guidance.”

It will take about a month for Jarrard to sift through each property and compile the data for the board.

Laughinghouse said if the documents and waivers look “kosher and if everything looks good, I would certainly think the board would grant that waiver again.”

If not, the board would retain its power to grant property waivers. But Ledbetter said he is confident that he and the three senior staff members he’s allowed to issue waivers have abided by the criteria set by Pendley in 2003.

“We’re doing the same thing we’ve done through the years, that we’ve consistently done with everybody,” Ledbetter said. “Everybody pays taxes in Forsyth County unless they meet very strict criteria and even then it comes under a lot of scrutiny between us.

“We make sure that people pay their fair share. We show no [preferential] treatment to anyone.”

The waivers apply only to penalties for late payments and to interest charges. Actual tax payments are not waived.

Ledbetter said he did not know exactly how much money in interest and penalties has been waived.

The average property tax bill, including commercial and residential, is $3,000. Interest is 1 percent for every month a payment is late.

If the bill is three months late, a 10 percent penalty is added on top of the 1 percent monthly interest rate. So for a $3,000 bill that’s six months late, the taxpayer would owe about $480 in penalties and interest.

But Ledbetter said “very, very, very few get to six months.”

“The majority of them are 30 days or less,” he said.

Ledbetter said if the board of commissioners decides some of the waivers were not warranted, “we’d be more than glad to re-bill if that’s what the board of commissioners agrees on.”

“We can re-bill all of them, but I think you’ve got to be consistent there,” he said.

Most waivers are done in person, with some requiring proof such as a health bill or check verification. Ledbetter said there are currently no pending waivers and he doesn’t expect any soon since taxes were due nearly seven months ago.

Less than half of a percent of the 231,000 bills per year get some form of waiver and then only if those owners meet one of a list of 10 conditions, he said.

Among circumstances warranting a waiver are wrong address on either a payment or bill, errors made by staff members or issues surrounding tax assessment exemptions and changes.

According to the county’s criteria and guidelines set by Pendley, the commissioner does have some flexibility.

If a taxpayer made an attempt in good faith to pay their taxes, they can submit a written request to the tax commissioner. The tax commissioner can then decide to waive penalties and interest on a case-by-case basis if the taxpayer “defaulted on payment due to some unforeseen and reasonable circumstance” and not willful disregard of the law.

“You do have to have some leeway when you’re operating an office as big as the tax commissioner’s,” Ledbetter said. “But we’re audited by the state, by the county and by the board of education every year, and we have always been left with a clean bill of health.

“It’s a bad situation that needs to get fixed is what it is, and we’re working with the county attorney to do that.”