Error botches Island County tax billing process
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
March 29, 2010 · Updated 10:24 AM
An error in the Camano Island tax levy rate has led to extra work for an understaffed county department, wasted tax dollars, upset taxpayers and acrimony between county departments.
For Whidbey Island property owners, the error means the county will be slow in processing tax payments.
Island County Assessor Dave Mattens said a levy analyst erroneously used an old rate for the Camano Fire District levy. An employee at the fire department discovered the error a couple of weeks ago, which was after the property tax levy rates had been certified and tax bills sent out.
Mattens blamed the error on staffing levels in his department, as well as a software change years ago that eliminated a critical step which allowed both the assessor and treasurer’s offices to check for errors.
“We try to provide checks on everything we do,” he said, “but there’s only so much we can do with the resources we have.”
Yet Island County Treasurer Linda Riffe is upset about the error, which has meant a lot of extra work for her small department. And she doesn’t buy Mattens’ explanation about staffing shortages. She said there’s been an ongoing problem with errors in the levies provided by the assessor’s office, though this was the first time the error wasn’t caught before bills went out.
“Not once in my years in office have I received a tax roll that was accurate the first time. They always have to be re-certified two or three times,” Riffe said.
Riffe is in her eighth year in office and isn’t seeking reelection. Mattens is in his first term and he has filed for reelection this year. They are both Democrats.
Mattens strongly defended his office staff and explained that a long-awaited new software system should eliminate the problems. He said in 1998 the office switched to a Windows platform, and in doing so, removed the step of creating a tax roll that the assessor and treasurer could check for problems.
He said the two offices “passed it back and forth until it was balanced” in the past, but now the assessor has no access to the tax rolls. The assessor sends the levy rates to central services and that department created the tax roll for the treasurer’s office.
“It’s unfortunate that the treasurer wants to point a finger at one particular department,” Mattens said. “We’re one county and we can’t make it work without each other. We’re all sharing the same outdated and outmoded technology.”
Riffe is also angry that Mattens didn’t send out a press release or an alert to Camano Island residents to let them know what happened — at least not until this week. As a result, she said her employees have had to deal with phone calls from people who blame them for the error.
“We’re getting hundreds of phone calls from angry Camano taxpayers. They’re yelling at us. Yelling,” she said. “We had nothing to do with the error. Absolutely nothing. And we’re the ones having to deal with it.”
The error meant that the levies had to be re-certified, which Mattens said is a simple process. Then a programmer in central services fixed the program.
After that, Riffe said her office had to resend all the tax statements to Camano Island property owners. Staff members contacted all the mortgage, escrow and title companies to let them know what happened.
The biggest problem for the treasurer’s office, Riffe said, is that hundreds of people have already mailed in their tax payments. Her staff members sorted through all of them, found the Camano Island properties and sent those back. They had to block all the online payments and refund all the electronic payments for Camano Island property.
Riffe explained that she had to send the payments back because, under state law, she isn’t able to accept partial payments. Her office can only accept the total, correct amount for property taxes.
All the payments for Whidbey Island properties are sitting in a secure area. Riffe warned that it will take her office longer than normal to process those payments.
According to Riffe, the error has cost the county just over $7,000 in postage and printing costs, but that doesn’t take into account all the extra staff time. She said senior members of her staff worked significant overtime hours to fix the problem. Still, her department is now behind schedule on other tasks.
“The brunt of this has fallen on my office,” she said. “The effect has been enormous and we didn’t have anything to do with the error.”
For his part, Mattens said he doesn’t want to minimize the error, which he said was serious. But he explained that he lost three people in his office over the last couple years of budget cuts. One of those people was the front-desk assistant. Now his other employees, including the levy analyst, are responsible for helping people who come through the door. He said that kind of distraction in the middle of calculations can lead to errors. The current, outdated program also has a tendency to not save changes, the assessor indicated.
Mattens said his diminished staff had to deal with “a perfect storm” of issues in recent months, including a state audit, legal questions about personal property and the complications of working with taxing districts shared with other counties.
Mattens also pointed out that his department has saved the county thousands of dollars in the last couple of years. Last year, his staff saved the health department about $10,000 in postage costs by figuring out a way to compile just the addresses of people who are affected by the septic code.
This year, he said, he obtained a $43,000 grant that will offset the cost of salaries in his department.
Mattens said it wouldn’t be fair to discipline the levy analyst for making an honest mistake, plus it would be bad for the flagging morale in the county.
“Is it unfortunate and I don’t take it lightly,” he said. “It’s human error, you know.”Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.