LUMBERTON — Some commissioners believe more must be done to increase Robeson County’s property tax collection rate, which has been trending upward in recent years but badly trails the state average.
County Commissioner David Edge says more pressure must be applied for taxpayers to pay on time.
“The county has made the people too relaxed. They don’t care anymore if they make their payments,” Edge said during the March 20 meeting of the Board of Commissioners.
During the meeting, auditor Wade Greene told the board that in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, the county’s tax collection rate was 93.48 percent. That compared with the state’s average collection rate of about 99 percent, he said.
The goal is to have more taxes collected in a timely fashion, County Manager Ricky Harris said.
“We get the money collected,” he said. “We’re taking steps to collect. We don’t lose the money. We’re just don’t get it in a timely fashion.”
The taxes must be paid by Jan. 5 of each year to avoid penalty.
Harris said collecting taxes after they are due does not impair the budgeting process, he said. The county formulates its annual budget based on the amount of taxes collected the previous year.
“We’re conservative with our budget,” Harris said.
If the county could boost its collection rate to bring it in line with the state average, that would be an extra $3 million in the county’s coffers each year. That equals about 5 cents on the county’s current tax rate of 77 cents per $100 of property value. A single cent on the rate raises about $600,000. Robeson’s property tax rate is the 25th highest in the state, according to information from the North Carolina Department of Revenue.
The county’s property tax collection rate has been increasing, said Cindy Lowry, the county”s tax administrator. Since 2012, when it was 90.01 percent, it has climbed each year and was 92.78 for the 2014-15 fiscal year.
As of Feb. 28 the county had collected 85.81 percent of property taxes owed for the current fiscal year — $41 million of about $49 million that is due. All the taxes collected before the end of the fiscal year on June 30 will used in factoring this year’s rate.
“We’re constantly working on taxes, just like everywhere else,” Lowry said.
Property owners who want to use their payment as a tax deduction must pay before midnight on Dec. 31. The deadline to pay without penalty is Jan. 5. After that, the penalty is 2 percent until the end of January, and then .75 percent for each additional month not paid.
The county still is collecting back taxes and fees from as far back as 2012, Lowry said.
The average statewide collection rate for counties with 100,000 residents or more was 97.68 percent in 2010-11, 97.79 percent in 2011-12, 97.82 in 2012-13, 98.37 in 2013-14 and 99 percent in 2014-15, according to information from the Department of the State Treasurer.
Robeson County has about 135,000 residents.
Edge is calling for a more aggressive approach to collecting taxes. The county currently uses wage garnishments, bank account attachments and, as a last resort, property foreclosures. County officials have always stressed a willingness to set up payment plans with delinquent taxpayers who express an interest in getting their bill paid.
“We need to adopt a more stringent policy for making people pay taxes,” Edge said. “We are now letting people go without paying their taxes for years.”
Board Chairman Tom Taylor didn’t offer any specific suggestion for improving the tax collection rate, but said during the March 20 meeting he does agree with Edge that something needs to be done.
“I think we are doing about all we can to collect taxes, but we need to somehow tighten up,” Taylor said. “You shouldn’t owe two or three years’ worth of taxes. If one person needs to pay their taxes, everyone needs to pay.”
The county each year publishes information on property owners and businesses that have not paid their taxes. That is normally done in The Robesonian, although another publication had been used twice in recent years. The tax listing is normally done sometime in May.
Reach T.C. Hunter at 910-816-1974. Staff writer Bob Shiles contributed to this report. He can be reached at 910-416-5165.