And paid the $49,500 for construction of new council chambers at town hall.
If collected, there would be $30,000 left over to fund a 25th anniversary celebration.
With a current ad valorem tax collection rate of 61 percent, the town has racked up a total of $202,638.44 in unpaid taxes and interest since 1998.
“That is an abnormally low collection rate,” said Ellis Hankins, Executive Director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities. “It is unusual. If the collection rate were where it should be, which means well over 95 percent, the property tax rate could be lower.”
The list of delinquent taxpayer names folds into a stack of paper a half-inch thick. Banks, mortgage companies and unsettled estates make up a big chunk of it. So do individuals who, having failed to pay year after year, and now owe hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
The annual amount of unpaid taxes has also steadily climbed. In 1999, the total was $4,866. By 2004 it hit $12,932. In 2007 the bad debt totaled $20,770 and last year it topped $30,746.
Even the trivial amounts add up. Pepsi Cola Bottling Company still owes Dobbins Heights $1.90 (interest included) from 2004. Councilman Curtis Ratliff hasn’t made a payment on one particular parcel since 1999, when his total bill amount was $6.90. Today it is $7.75 — but he owes a total of $100.29 combined in back municipal taxes on the property for the past 10 years.
State law says municipal governments must advertise the names of those who fail to pay their taxes on time. Other municipal governments in Richmond County do advertise and have a tax collect rate of between 96 and 98 percent.
Dobbins Heights doesn’t.
“It costs money to advertise in the paper, and if you don’t collect any money then you’ve just incurred another cost,” said Mayor Antonio Blue.
Richmond County incurred a cost to advertise those names on April 29 - and Blue was listed as behind on his county taxes. According to him, his county taxes are now paid. Blue isn’t named on the Dobbins Heights bad debt list obtained by the Daily Journal.
State law requires that all governmental taxing authorities advertise the names of delinquent taxpayers. But, according to Hankins, there’s no penalty for not advertising. At least not that he knows of.
“The policy is that knowing the list might be run is encouragement enough in itself for those who owe money to pay,” he said.
“We’ll just have to start advertising again,” said Town Clerk Magee in an earlier interview.
There’s also no penalty for failure to maintain a good municipal collection rate.
Hankins said the solution is ultimately a matter for the Town of Dobbins Heights and its citizens to decide.
“It’s not fair for some taxpayers to pay if all are supposed to,” said Hankins. “If I were a resident, I would be concerned about that.”
According to town tax collector Katherine Adams, the town presently sends out a first notice to delinquent taxpayers. Interest is added if a second notice has to be sent out. Failure to respond to that warrants a notice to be sent to the individual’s employer. Garnishment is the next option, with foreclosure being the end of the road.
In regard to his own unpaid taxes, Councilman Ratliff said Thursday that after periods of prolonged illness and absence from the council, there had been a misunderstanding as to how collections were handled for his account.
“(My wife) thought they would garnish it out of her paycheck,” said Ratliff. “We didn’t know that once it was paid off we had to ask them to garnish it again the next time.”
On May 21, the town received a letter from the Department of the State Treasurer concerning the town’s low collection rate. Sharon Edmundson, author of the letter and director of the department’s fiscal management section, suggested both consolidation with Richmond County and participation in the State’s Debt Setoff Clearinghouse Program.
Town Clerk Mary Magee said Thursday she is preparing a response to Edmundson, and the mayor and council will meet in full to discuss the issues at hand. The board meets again on July 9 and 7 p.m. at town hall.