Douglas County commissioners want to get their hands on more than $2.25 million in unpaid taxes, and they're talking about bringing in some muscle to help get the job done.
"We have sheriff's deputies who are doing our tax collection right now, and the joke is they have one gun and we need to hire a guy with two guns," said Commissioner Jere McElhaney, who professes to be only half joking. "We're going to give it a shot."
So commissioners are looking into hiring a collection agency to wring payments from delinquent taxpayers.
The tax scofflaws are current and former county residents and businesses that have failed to pay tax bills on personal property -- business equipment, mobile homes, mopeds, boats and the like.
During the past seven years, the uncollected balance of such delinquencies has reached $489,837. The total doesn't include unpaid balances being addressed in bankruptcy cases, which are handled through the court system.
County records show that since 1980, more than $2.25 million in personal property taxes remains unpaid -- a small fraction of the total taxes assessed, but still enough to raise the eyebrows of commissioners.
"It's our responsibility to collect the taxes," said Commissioner Bob Johnson. "We ought to make sure that we're doing everything we can, within reason, to have those taxes collected timely and efficiently."
Hiring a collection agency would cost money, probably a percentage of the amounts collected. County officials have not started discussions of how much they might be willing to spend or what kind of agency they might turn to, but the concept of turning to outside help is gaining momentum.
Locking up savings?
Typically, the treasurer's office turns over its list of delinquent taxpayers to the Douglas County Sheriff's Department for enforcement. But with the sheriff's office balancing its own tight budget with demands for a bigger jail and heightened patrols, commissioners figure the time is right to bring in some help.
"It's going to cost money. An agency is going to ask for a certain percentage of the taxes collected, and that's fine," McElhaney said. "It costs us money to have these sheriff's deputies, and their cars, and the filing of papers, our overhead expenses, our overtime, our taxes.
"It's a cost of money no matter how you look at it. We just hope to save some money instead of it costing us more money."
The county treasurer's office collects personal property taxes, and the vast majority of bills are paid on time. Of the $7.43 million in taxes assessed in 2003, all but $172,019 has been collected -- a delinquency rate of 2.3 percent.
As the years pass, the rate typically falls as bills are paid. All but $21,000 of the $6.43 million in taxes assessed in 1997 has been paid, a delinquency rate of 0.3 percent.
The treasurer's office can freeze a taxpayer's vehicle registration until personal property taxes are paid, an authority that is particularly effective for individual tax delinquents, said Cindy Monshizadeh, interim deputy county treasurer.
"Someone came in the other day and took care of an '85 and '86 (delinquency)," she said, noting that the bill came to $400 or $500, after interest and penalties. "They had moved out of state, and they came back. They were responsible."
But such cases are not the norm. Of the 481 delinquent accounts from the 1985 and 1986 tax years, records show, nine payments have come in during the past year.
Commissioners say they don't want to wait such a long time for payments. It's a matter of money, Commissioner Charles Jones said, but more of an issue of fairness.
All taxpayers are supposed to share in the costs of government, Jones said, and allowing some people and businesses to escape their responsibilities just isn't right.
"It's a matter of equity," Jones said. "Everybody has to pay their fair share, and we always have a very, very few people who try to dodge their responsibilities and so we have to do some collecting."
Commissioners intend to discuss the possibilities for hiring a collection agency sometime within the next two months, Jones said.