Tax Fiasco

Treasurer tries to explain

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Gila County Treas­urer Debora Savage Tuesday struggled to explain to a frustrated board of supervisors why 2013 property tax bills are more than a month late for the third year in a row.

She blamed software glitches and the ongoing conversion to a new system, which reportedly does not play well with the state’s software.

Savage said she does not understand why Gila County keeps having the problems since she knows of no other county suffering the same issues, but she admitted she doesn’t understand technology.

Savage didn’t give supervisors much hope things will get better. She predicted a similar delay next year.

Gila County Super­visor Tommie Martin and board chair Mike Pastor called that un­acceptable and asked staff to fix the issues instead of accepting another delay.

“We need to do something because this is nuts,” Martin said. “It’s nuts to sit here right now and say, ‘Yep, we expect this next year too.’”

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Gila County Treasurer Debora Savage

“Well, we tried to resolve this back in April and we really thought everything was good,” Savage said, “but until the information starts being pulled in, I guess, like I said, I am not a computer person. I only know what they tell me and pass the information on to those in the know because I don’t.”

Savage said her office could have the personal property tax bills printed and sent out now, but she was waiting for all the bugs to get fixed, which mostly affect commercial property bills. She asked the board if she should wait until the commercial property bills were ready before sending everything to the printer.

Martin and Pastor said they didn’t see why Savage should wait. If the personal property tax bills are ready, send them out, they said.

Savage asked the board to vote on the decision.

County attorney Bryan Chambers interrupted, saying the council couldn’t vote on the issue since it was slated as discussion only.

One person in the audience at Tuesday’s meeting commented that Savage was the elected official and she should make the call.

The issue(s)

Under Arizona statute, public entities, like towns, schools and fire districts maintain their bank accounts with the county treasurer. Their tax money goes to the treasurer, who issues payments to the government entities’ vendors as expense vouchers are received.

For most districts, a majority of their money comes from property taxes. Usually, tax bills go out to property owners in September with a Nov. 1 payment deadline. Most districts build their budgets around those deadlines.

This year’s late property tax bills forced some districts to borrow money to stay open.

Savage said five out of eight school districts and two out of 13 fire districts have had to rely on credit lines because they had exhausted their operating budgets. However, some funding for school districts came in on Tuesday, so those districts would be paying down their credit lines. She didn’t explain where the funding came from.

For any other entities, including fire districts, the county will use its own credit line, interest free.

None of the fire districts, however, had even “come close” to exceeding their lines of credit.

Still, officials at the county’s bank had assured her they could increase credit lines quickly if needed.

What went wrong

“One of my most favorite quotes is, ‘Today is the tomorrow I worried about yesterday,’” Savage said at the start of her presentation before the board Tuesday. “I have been worried about this for more yesterdays than I care to make known.”

In late fall of 2012, Savage learned the county’s existing property tax computer program would become obsolete and the county would no longer have a maintenance agreement with the software company.

The county decided to contract out for a new tax system with Higher Technology. Moving data from the old system to the new one involved proofing some 50,000 secured and unsecured tax records from the last seven years.

Unfortunately, after months of work, the technology firm informed Savage it could not meet the deadline for getting this year’s bills to the printer.

For the last two weeks, the firm’s staff has been in Savage’s office working the kinks out and verifying with county staff tax roll information. The consultants had to change some legal class ratios from 2013 after importing the files, which required re-verifying and uploading everything again, she said. Now, the company is working to fix problems with data received from the Department of Revenue, which the new software won’t read properly.

But that is the only problem now holding things up, she said. “We haven’t heard of any other county having that problem so I don’t know where the problem is to be quite honest,” she said.

“The reason I didn’t send them out to begin with was because at the time we didn’t know what was affected,” said Savage. “So prior to Friday (Nov. 1), I wouldn’t have known what was the problem.”

Martin asked if the county was getting any credit from the software company for its “ineptness.”

“Not to my knowledge,” Savage said.

Savage predicted she could get property bills out by Nov. 15.

Homeowners would then have 30 days to pay.

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