County should farm out the job of collecting taxes

Of the many lingering questions following the county’s failed attempt to provide cover for property owners who were delinquent on paying their 2017 taxes, perhaps the most compelling is this one: How does the county decide which delinquent taxpayers it will go hard after through available remedies, to include garnishing wages, attaching bank accounts, and foreclosure, and who does it allow to continue to skate?

The Angel Exchange debacle provided a glimpse into the preferential treatment that exists for those properly connected as the county Board of Commissioners appeared ready to pay millions of dollars for an overpriced property instead of pushing for foreclosure that could have secured the building for a fraction of the cost, or perhaps — and even better in our eyes — found a private buyer.

Following the county’s decision to hide the delinquent taxpayers in a weekly newspaper with almost no circulation, this newspaper looked with a keener eye, and found two immediate relatives of county commissioners had been purposely omitted from the list. But that is not the worst of it: We found as well that they were not only delinquent for the 2017 taxes, but both owed taxes as far back as 2013.

Our reporting brought forth a spigot of information as we heard from county employees who said they are threatened with having their wages garnished if they are late paying taxes, and we also heard from a private person with a particularly disturbing story: She shared that she and her husband had a history of paying on time, but this year they were delinquent as they waited on a sizable business check to arrive. They received a letter from the county saying to pay within 10 days but their bank account was attached three days later, and a $125 fine assessed.

The most generous conclusion is that the process is arbitrary, but we will fall into a more sinister camp, and submit that politics has polluted this as well. What else can explain the disinterest in collecting back taxes from two relatives of county commissioners for as many as five years?

The urgency in collecting taxes in Robeson County is greater than most places because of unmet needs, including more local dollars for the Public Schools of Robeson County, which underperforms, and more money for the Sheriff’s Office, which must do battle with inadequate resources in the county where crime ranks No. 1 Although the tax collection rate has climbed in recent years, it is still far below the state average, and the county uses a dull blade to threaten those who are tardy. Publishing late notices in a hard-to-find weekly newspaper and not going after delinquent taxpayers aggressively through available avenues essentially creates two classes of taxpayers, and places the burden on those of us who do pay.

The city of Lumberton has a private firm collect its delinquent taxes, and city officials told us the results have been outstanding. The best part is there is no cost to the city as the delinquent taxpayer pays the firm the cost of its work.

We doubt any honest person in this county trusts the county Board of Commissioners to fix this problem, and that is where the blame lies, not with the Tax Office. Trust us on that.

The commissioners who now run the board, unlike the city, will never relinquish control of the tax-collection process because then they would be unable to provide cover for family, friends, people who vote and the list continues.

The board in December will be a different one, and although the votes might not exist to farm out this process, it would be fun to watch some commissioners raise their hands in opposition to an agnostic process toward tax collections that would cost the county nothing while delivering more dollars to the General Fund.