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Legion Post 102 attempts to help veteran

GATESVILLE – Moved by charity and kindness, American Legion members dug into their pockets to help pay the property taxes owed by a disabled veteran struggling to make ends meet.

During a recent meeting of the Gates County Commissioners, Roger Kiker, of Ahoskie’s American Legion Post 102, asked for more time to pay Amber Watson’s property taxes that were due May 31.

Watson’s husband served with the nation’s armed forces but died in a training accident, and she is a disabled veteran.

Gates County and Ahoskie’s American Legion posts raised $1,850, but it was not enough to pay the $2,115 bill that spanned two years worth of property taxes.

Commissioners were concerned that if they set a precedent by bending on this case, then other delinquent taxpayers could ask for more time to pay as well. Commission Chairwoman Linda Hofler said any change in precedent may result in a “slippery slope” being created.

After a long discussion during the meeting, commissioners unanimously approved a plan that gave the American Legion a bit more time but did not change the law.

Zacchaeus Legal Services of Trenton provides property tax foreclosure services for many local governments such as Gates County. Lane said during the 2018-19 tax cycle, Zaccheaus collected nearly $117,000 from foreclosures.

Commissioner Jack Owens noted that because Zaccheaus is hired by the county to do this job, the county is not necessarily restrained as to when to send the law firm the list of properties that would be in foreclosure.

County Tax Administrator Kathy Lane was preparing that list that was intended to go out perhaps as early as this week. Watson’s name was but one of 52 property owners facing foreclosure, many of whom have been delinquent for multiple years.

However, Commissioner Jonathan Jones made a motion, seconded by Commissioner J. Ray Freeman, that was unanimously approved by commission for the Tax Administrator to send that list by July 22 to Zaccheaus Legal Services. So there’s a chance that a delinquent taxpayer who pays their bill may be stricken from the list before it’s sent to the law firm’s home in Trenton, Jones County.

“This solution treats everyone on this list the same – it makes no exception for Mrs. Watson or anyone else,” Owens said. “If there is a benefit, everyone will benefit. I don’t think that sets any precedent. The next time this list comes up before the commission, I’ll ask the same question – when is the list going out.”

Because the property tax collection procedures and deadlines are still on the books, no precedent has been set to bend the rules. However, because the county has a contract with Zaccheaus, commissioners have the ability – as they had before taking action – to evaluate, if necessary, when to send that list.

No matter when the county mails the paperwork in July, the delinquent tax list needs to be complete no later than Aug. 1 for Zaccheaus to begin proceedings.

The county has a financial incentive to offer a minor massage for the mail date because Zaccheaus’ fees start at $800 when it begins the foreclosure process against a property owner.

Time was running out when the American Legion became aware of Watson’s plight in late June.

Gates County’s American Legion quickly raised $350 and Ahoskie’s American Legion was able to cut a check for $1,500.

“The uniqueness of this is the mere fact that you have an outside organization versus a family member – I think with a lot of other cases we have a family member or a promise from so and so, versus an organization,” Freeman said.

But even with the American Legion’s help, Watson was still short nearly $277.

Owens said he did not like how if $1,850 were paid toward the tax bill by the end of Wednesday, the shortfall would trigger foreclosure anyway.

Kiker said that given more time, particularly during the Fourth of July holiday, that American Legion groups would be able to come up with the money.

In other news, commissioners approved the county’s contract with the Emergency Management Services with only minor editing changes to the contract and a provision that requires the submission of financial reports to the county.

And, commissioners opted to file an insurance claim against the roofing contractor’s insurance company to cover recent damages from a roof leak that harmed a carpet, ceiling tiles, a copier, judge’s chambers and more at the courthouse, which had a new roof installed about a year ago. Possible painting and mold remediation was included as part of the commissioners plans to file a claim. Owens said the company has insurance, so it shouldn’t fall on the county

“They pay insurance for a reason – we have damage and it shouldn’t fall on us in any way,” Owens said. “We really even shouldn’t use the warranty on this because the warranty will be just workmanship and materials. They put a roof on – we have some damage that is roof related, but it is not the physical roof.”

And, commissioners chose not to adopt a new personnel policy for county employees, so the current policy will remain in effect. Recommended by Management and Personnel Services consultants, changes to the personnel policy were sought to deal with vacation policies and the elimination of a board to handle employee grievances.

Also, the county’s clock has stopped for taxpayers from 2008 who owe back taxes. Lane said state law does not allow the county to enforce collections for tax bills that are 10 years old for real estate and personal property taxes. She said county is owed more than $26,000 in back taxes from 2008. Traditionally, these accounts that have not been collected for 10 years are written-off the books.

And, commissioners changed zoning from agricultural to industrial for the purpose of operating a machine shop within a parcel of land along U.S. 32 near Sunbury in Huntersville Township.

Also, Jones will lead the county’s 2020 Census Complete Committee, a group organized to market efforts intended to get citizens to better participate with the upcoming census.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Maryann Pitman, of Gatesville, spoke about the old courthouse that is undergoing repairs and renovations. She said the county’s contributions to the courthouse were supposed to be around $200,000 with an additional $250,000 coming from other sources. She said those figures are no longer accurate because the county appears to be on the hook for $820,000 for the project.

“What I’d like to see for the future is that we put procedures in place to keep things like this from happening,” she said. “I understand that you feel you’ve got the situation in hand now, but as Commissioner Owens admitted at the time, there were some problems in the management of the project. I’d like to see us take steps to see that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. We can’t afford mismanagement. We just plain don’t have the money to throw around. And as a result, other things are suffering.”

Pitman said citizens are getting “restive” about tax increases and that the county’s priorities should be more focused on EMS, education and services instead of such projects.

“Our tax base is not such at this time that we can afford to keep putting taxes up,” she said. “There are people in the county that can’t afford to pay it, so vigilance on this issue is necessary.”