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County OKs tax amnesty

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By Sean Arnold

Staff writer

Some is better than none.

That’s the message Levy Tax Collector Linda Fugate delivered to the Board of County Commissioners Aug. 8 as she sought a fee amnesty on delinquent tangible taxes.

Fugate’s office is partnering with a third-party vendor to help collect delinquent tangible rolls. The vendor will provide manpower to collect property in order to auction and recover the delinquent tax revenue where possible.

Tangible taxes are collected on non-real estate property that’s used in a business – anything from computers and chairs to tractors and gas pipelines.

The third-party service comes at no cost to the county, but adds a 20 percent penalty to those they collect from that are delinquent.

“I’ve never had the manpower to go out and seize property,” Fugate said. “It takes quite an ordeal, if you can think about a timber company, forestry company, to go out and try to seize front-end loaders, or skidders and chainsaws.”

At the BOCC meeting, Fugate asked that the fee be waived until the end of the year for those who have been on the delinquent tax list since 2008, 2009, 2010 or 2011.

The resolution passed unanimously. Commissioner Mike Joyner offered the motion.

In the oldest cases from 2008, debtors might owe twice as much as their original tangible tax bill, thanks to penalties and fees, including for delinquent advertisements and attorneys.

“Those are the oldest ones out there, which are typically your hardest to collect,” Fugate said. “I know our coffers are short, but I don’t want to penalize anyone an additional 20 percent because they’re obviously not paying now because it’s gotten so astronomical.”

Fugate said there are “three to four” taxing authorities per tangible bill, and the BOCC is owed the largest share of that millage.

“I’m asking the board to consider a time of amnesty to take the penalty portion off, so that we can collect, clean up these older bills, so that we can keep everyone current,” she said.

Fugate said that after sending out letters to debtors warning of the new vendor and its fee, her office and Property Appraiser Osborn “Oz” Barker have received significant feedback which is helping straighten out errors in the rolls and in some cases encourage taxpayers to enter payment plans.

“We’re discovering people that are out of business, people that declared bankruptcy, people that are dead,” Fugate said. “Oz (Barker’s) staff and my staff are working very closely trying to determine the cases that we are able to correct, that had a bad dollar amount listed because they didn’t file a correct return, or any return, or they were out of business and never notified the office.”

“They’re required to pay on when they were in business. I’m still obligated under Florida statute to do my best to collect it until it’s determined to be an uncollectable debt, which may mean they’re deceased and I can’t find the equipment.”

The fee waiver could save taxpayers up to a combined $125,000 from the 2008 and 2009 rolls.

Fugate said the process behind the anticipation of the new collection vendor has also encouraged more taxpayers to make valuation adjustments to reflect the current value of their property. County Coordinator Wilbur Dean said accounting for the depreciation of equipment and filing readjustments is largely a responsibility of the taxpayer, and without doing so it can lead to needlessly higher tax bills.

“I think it could help us get a little more truth in valuations,” Fugate said of the prospect of more readjustments.

Barker reminded the Board that tangible tax bills provide a way to collect tax revenue from entities like energy companies, cellular companies and gas transmission companies – businesses that use county land and resources but don’t necessarily owe ad valorem taxes.

“They could decide not to pay it, but now Linda (Fugate) will have some teeth, a mechanism to collect,” Barker said.

Joyner enthusiastically supported the amnesty on fees until Dec. 31, noting that the fall peanut season offers a means for some Levy businesses to pay their bills.

“I commend you for bringing this idea up,” Joyner told Fugate. “If you can’t get $100 out of somebody, but you can get 80, that’s a whole lot better.

“People don’t realize what you go through, what Oz (Barker) goes through, on this equipment. I think it would help the county financially, rather than people just walking off from it.”