Meeting delayed to follow the law
A seemingly routine request from Haywood County Tax Collector Mike Matthews to advertise the delinquent real estate taxes raised legal issues and a rush to prepare a year-end report required by law.
The snafu extended the board of commissioners meeting that began at 9 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. as attendance dwindled to three board members who waited for the necessary tax report. Ultimately, the board directed David Francis, the county tax administrator, to help the tax collector prepare his report.
The issue surfaced when Commissioner Kevin Ensley asked Matthews for the report on delinquent taxes that was supposed to be provided before the commissioners could act. Matthews said it wouldn’t be ready until the next meeting in February.
“The law said the report is due the first meeting in February,” he said quoting N.C. General Statute 105-369. “We need to know what’s collected and what’s delinquent. You’ve had a month to prepare the report.”
Tax bills are sent out early each fall, and become delinquent on Jan. 6.
Matthews said he hadn’t prepared the January report yet because he was intending to include all the receipts that month.
“It says in February of each year the tax collector must report to the governing body the total amount of unpaid taxes for the current fiscal year that are liens on real property,” Ensley read. “A county tax collector’s report is due the first Monday in February.”
Matthews said that is not how it was handled last year, but admitted it was “obviously wrong.” A brief recess allowed commissioner minutes to be examined, which showed the action was taken on the second February board meeting in 2016, but always by the statutory deadline before that. Matthews was elected tax collector in November 2014.
Commission Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said the board shouldn’t be in the position of approving advertising for delinquent taxes before receiving the document needed and asked Matthews to produce the report.
As the board meeting continued, Matthews briefly conferred with his deputy in the audience and was heard telling her to go run the report. The deputy then went to David Francis, who was attending the meeting and previously held the tax collector job, to ask a question about the process.
When asked by The Mountaineer it if would take a while to get the report, Francis said it should take about 10 minutes.
When the board recessed about 12:15, no report had been delivered, so commissioners attended their closed session business and reconvened at 1:30, short one member. Commissioner Bill Upton had a doctor’s appointment he tried to change, but couldn’t.
The needed report still wasn’t available, so Kirkpatrick asked Francis to help get it ready.
While in open session the board members discussed items scheduled for the board work session at 2 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Health and Human Services Building meeting room, but recessed again as they awaited the report, by which time Commissioner Michael Sorrells had to leave.
Within about a half hour or so, Matthews delivered the two-page report, which showed $36.6 million in real estate taxes had been paid by the due date, leaving about $3.5 million in unpaid taxes.
However, Matthews said that about $500,000 of that had come in but was not reflected in the report.
After getting the document, the board directed Matthews to advertise the delinquent real estate taxes by April 5.
After the meeting, Ensley said he really doesn’t fall asleep nightly reading state statutes. He simply came upon the statute citing the need for the tax report when he was reviewing the commissioner’s information packet prior to the meeting.
Public comment sought
Earlier in the meeting, the board considered a resolution to make the tax collector position an appointed rather than elected one, which would bring Haywood in line with the other 99 counties in the state that have already updated their local bills to conform to the statewide laws.
County Manager Ira Dove said in 1971, the state decided to clean up the tax collector status by making the position an appointed one fully accountable to the county governing board. He read the many provisions referring to the appointed collector and delineating the level of control the elected commissioners have over the person in office.
The resolution set forth the reasons for the change, and asked the Haywood legislative delegation to draft a local bill to start the process.
When polled last week, all five commissioners indicated they supported the resolution, but Commissioner Brandon Rogers said he had heard from constituents who would like to have a public hearing first.
Ensley said there had been plenty of public comment on the subject, but in the spirit of transparency, he wouldn’t oppose time for even more comment.
Kirkpatrick said the issue wasn’t one that rose to a public hearing level, but agreed if commissioners wanted to allow more time for the public to again weigh in on the matter, that could happen.
The board opted to delay the vote until the Feb. 20 meeting, which will be held at 5:30 p.m. in the Historic Courthouse.
As always, the meeting is open to the public who can communicate their viewpoints directly to the county commissioners at the beginning of each session.