Lowry exits as tax collections trend upward

The next few months will answer the question of why the Robeson County Board of Commissioners didn’t extend the contract of Tax Administrator Cindy Lowry for another two years, which is what she had sought.

Two commissioners, David Edge and Tom Taylor, both said that there was discontent among fellow commissioners with the county’s collection rate, which, according to County Manager Ricky Harris, ranks dead last in the state. It only figures that we would be low in collections given the county’s pervasive property, but we don’t think it is quite that simple. There is plenty to suggest that the county is not aggressive enough in collections.

Lowry became tax administrator in 2008, when the collection rate was an abysmal 86.57 percent; it has climbed steadily since then and in 2017 was 93.72 — still far below the state average, but an increase of a shade more than 8 percent. That 8 percent, given that the county raises about $50 million a year in ad valorem taxes, accounts for between $4 million and $5 million in additional revenue.

Not bad, if you ask us.

Of interest to us is the sudden concern among five commissioners about the tax collection rate — and their blind eye toward the fact that the Tax Office, with Lowry at the helm, is on a positive trajectory.

Lowry’s office also recently completed a revaluation of county property, which has in the past produced at lot of outrage among owners who have complained their property’s value had been inflated, driving up their tax burden. While there are always problems with such a large job, this newspaper did not receive a single phone call from a person complaining about a new value, so we are left to assume that any problems were minimal and handled quickly by the Tax Office.

Credit would go to Lowry for that.

This year has provided plenty of insight into the board’s lackadaisical approach to collecting taxes. First there was the Angel Exchange debacle, which demonstrated the county’s unwillingness to foreclose on a major piece of property that was approaching $100,000 in owed back taxes, and the suggestion the owners were being bailed out by the purchase of a building with little use.

Then there was the decision by the county not to publish the delinquent taxes in this newspaper, opting instead to publish in a weekly newspaper with modest circulation and no website. That decision undermined the intent of the law that they be published in a newspaper of general circulation — which is to inform some who don’t even know they owe, and shame others into paying before they are published.

It was at this time that we found that some names of people delinquent in their taxes, including two immediate relatives of county commissioners, were omitted from the published list. Last time we checked, those two relatives owed taxes going back five years — and we have to believe something emboldens them to skip on this duty, such as no penalty to pay.

Then there were two commissioners who paid their taxes more than a month late, and only after knowing that this newspaper planned a news story if they didn’t pay soon.

Edge told this newspaper that the county has taken the approach not to aggressively pursue delinquent taxes until at least Year 5, which makes no sense to us. Perhaps the new board in December can establish a more aggressive policy that is black and white, and not muddy.

What the county has essentially done is to establish two groups of taxpayers, those who pay and do so on time, and those who don’t and then effectively duck any penalty.

We don’t know with certainty who the next tax administrator will be, although we have a strong hunch. So the question is begged: Will this person be given the necessary tools to collect taxes in a county that needs every dime it can get, or will this person have her hands tied, and be asked to continue to provide cover for those who don’t pay their taxes on time or at all?