‘Back taxes’ cause concern

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 7, 2004

JACKSON – A mild debate arose, here Monday, as several Northampton property owners made an appeal to the Board of Commissioners, regarding a property tax form they are citing as &uot;ambiguous.&uot;

As the Board recessed its regular session and convened a session of the Board of Equalization and Review, taxpayers asked Commissioners to consider repealing tax penalties they incurred as a result of incorrectly filling out information on the county’s property listing abstract.

According to Interim Tax Administrator Cathy Allen, letters were sent out to residents that failed to report taxable properties to the Northampton County Tax Department after the department compared its list of registered and unregistered personal watercraft vehicles with a list recently made available to them through the Department of Revenue.

&uot;The law allows us to collect taxes on personal watercraft vehicles from the date of purchase,&uot; explained Tax Assistant II Kathy Butler, &uot;But in the case where someone has had a boat since 1976, for example, the law only allows us to tax the current year plus five years back.&uot; A fact Henrico resident Margaret Johnson is all too keenly aware.

Johnson, who is facing six years of penalties told the Board, &uot;I have read insurance forms for 30 years of my life, but this form is ambiguous,&uot; she said adding that she almost certainly remembered contacting the tax office when she and her husband moved to the area six years ago to ensure everything was legitimate.

&uot;I think for 400-500 people to misunderstand the instructions or make an error, supports the fact that there is something wrong with the form,&uot; said Johnson, &uot;And to be punished for six years later is ridiculous.&uot; She also alleged that many other residents noticed errors with their taxes, but were afraid to come forth and inquire about them for fear they’d have to pay additional fees.&uot;

As a result of comparing lists with the Department of Revenue, the tax office has already sent out approximately 400-500 letters to taxpayers for failure to pay taxes on items not listed on the form.

&uot;We are still processing discovery bills to find out who else we need to send letters to,&uot; said Allen, &uot;But it’s time consuming because we only have two listing clerks.&uot; Allen also noted that the discoveries were not limited to watercraft vehicles, but included properties such as mobile homes.

&uot;Citizens have 30 days from the time they receive the letter to appeal before it becomes a bill,&uot; said Allen, &uot;After that, any changes must be brought before the Board of Commissioners for review and approval.&uot;

Johns Martin, one of the recipients of the letter and a resident of Gaston, told the Board that his boat has been registered ever since he purchased it and expressed frustration at the dilemma.

&uot;I moved from Florida and was under the assumption that I wasn’t required to do anything else since my boat was registered,&uot; he said. &uot;I have no problem paying taxes, but I think the fines and penalties are unfair.&uot;

Tax violators are required to pay 10 percent for 2004 with fees increasing an additional 10 percent for each year taxes have not been paid dating back five years.

Unlike the Department of Motor Vehicles, which reports their registrations to the tax office, the Wildlife Commission does not provide a list of registered watercraft vehicles.

Virginia Allen, also a resident of Henrico, commented that she, too, was confused by the form. &uot;My husband died in 1999 and he was the one who handled all this stuff, so I didn’t know how to fill out this paperwork,&uot; she said. &uot;I’m willing to pay the tax that I owe, but not the penalty.&uot;

According to the Tax Department, relief from taxes or penalties can only be granted for one of three reasons: illegal tax, clerical error or tax levied for illegal purposes.

During public comment, citizen Kitty Slaton requested that Commissioners &uot;think seriously about the tax situation,&uot; stating that since many boat owners don’t live in the county and don’t read the newspaper, an effort should be made to disseminate the information in a clear and simple manner to the areas that would be most affected.

Slaton suggested sending out post cards as a possible way of avoiding the problem in the future.

Cathy Allen expressed the possibility of having the Wildlife Commission submit a list of registered watercraft vehicles annually to avoid similar situations in the future.

Commissioner Fannie Greene said she felt the form lacked clarity and would like to have more time to review the situation. Newly sworn-in Commissioner James Hester also expressed agreement with Greene’s motion to table the issue and stated that he felt it was &uot;unfair to put a penalty on them (the taxpayers) because they misunderstood&uot; the form.

The issue was tabled, pending further investigation into the wording of the form, in a three to one vote, with Commissioner James Boone dissenting. A decision over how to handle the tax relief will also be reviewed.