Tax office trend is a dangerous trajectory

Feb 24, 2017

A chart distributed at a recent county work session is a stark reminder of the untenable situation Haywood County faces when it comes to being the lone county in the state with an elected tax collector.

Even the business owner who hires a brother-in-law for a key position faces two equally bad choices if things don’t work out — offend a spouse or lose the business. Unlike the other 99 counties in the state, Haywood taxpayers have no choice when it comes to their tax collector if he or she turns out to be a dud.

The elected official’s salary still must be paid throughout the length of the elected term, whether the job is done satisfactorily or not at all.

It is a gray area as to whether county officials can even hire someone else to step in since the elected official is in charge. There is no path in North Carolina to remove an elected official from office, regardless of circumstances.

Haywood’s legislative delegation has agreed the only way Haywood can join the 99 other counties in the state who have appointed tax collectors is hold a referendum, an extreme step no other county has had to go through. Because of the election timing, running the Haywood tax collection operation in the same manner as across the state is six years away.

Here’s what’s at stake with that position.

Data show that the system in place statewide has achieved an average tax collection rate of 98.91 percent of funds due. Haywood’s collection rate is 97.28 percent, a difference that amounts to almost $675,000 in real dollars. Whatever is happening elsewhere is a proven model of success, and Haywood is being prevented from embracing that model for at least six years. Multiply $675,000 annually by six and it totals $4 million that would be available by ensuring all shoulder their fair share of the tax burden. These are funds that could be used for tax relief or to provide needed services or projects in the county.

The even more alarming trend shows that the distance between Haywood’s performance and that of other counties is widening. Tax collection rates rose statewide after a 2015 legislative change that required motor vehicle owners to pay vehicle taxes when they purchase a tag. Haywood’s rate also rose slightly, but is now on a decline. The most recent tax collection report shows that nearly 91 percent of the taxes billed last fall were paid by the end of January. Now the “collection” work begins, and the final year-end percentage won’t be recorded until June 30.  If Haywood’s percentage doesn’t reach last year’s level, it means the gap between here and the rest of the state will continue to widen.

The only hope for change lies with a local bill to amend the state law. Haywood’s legislators agreed to introduce one, but Rep. Michele Presnell has insisted the only way she would support the change was to hold a referendum. That decision means Haywood taxpayers will be held hostage to an antiquated system for six more years. Legislators are elected to make hard decisions on what is best for their constituents.

A simple review of the facts dictates the path that must be taken.