A local woman alleges that Pacific officials held tax money that should have never been collected in the first place.
“It was handled poorly,” the woman, Genetta Tomnitz, of Pacific, said. “It was handled like a teenager.”
Her complaints deal with the way the city handled a process to buy out homes that were damaged in a 2008 flood.
She said she was charged for property taxes that she did not owe. Others who took part in the government buyout program may have also been victimized, she said.
“Was I the only one whose money they were playing with?” Tomnitz asked.
City Defends Stance
Pacific City Administrator Harold Selby said everything was handled legally and “above board.”
Selby added, “I have plenty of documentation to back up everything. We’ve done everything right.”
Moreover, Selby said everything the city did was overseen by the state and federal emergency management agencies.
Tomnitz said she feels lied to by Pacific officials.
After the 2008 flood, Tomnitz accepted a deal to have her home bought out with Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and State Emergency Management Agency dollars.
Selby said the city bought out about 24 houses through the program, which was funded with a grant of approximately $2 million.
Tomnitz said her home was damaged in the flood, but she repaired it and eventually moved back in four months later.
But she said the buyout program was offered for three years, and she got a letter from the city right before the program was going to expire, telling her she could still take advantage.
After finding another house in Pacific, Tomnitz decided that she would indeed take advantage of the buyout program.
The purpose of the buyout program was to acquire the homes in the floodway, knock them down and turn them into open space so the houses could not be flooded again.
Selby said the city hired Security Title through a bid process to handle the property sales for the flood buyout program.
“I thought that the process went pretty well,” Selby said.
Most of the people who took advantage of the flood buyout still live in Pacific, he said.
“I think we got people a good price for their houses,” Selby said, noting that there were two appraisals done. “I think everyone was satisfied.”
He added that Pacific looked at what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“We wanted to make sure that the process went much smoother and quicker here than what happened down there,” Selby said.
When Tomnitz closed her house sale, the title company charged her for property taxes that should have never been collected, she said.
She said the county assessor’s office told her that if a government agency buys a property, then taxes are not due on it for that year. But at the time she accepted the buyout in 2011, she did not know that she was exempt from property taxes.
So she said she paid $286 in property taxes in April 2011 to Security Title, which, she said, had an office in Pacific at the time. Tomnitz said she believes the title company then turned that tax money over to the city of Pacific.
In June 2012, she learned that she should have never been required to pay those taxes.
But Selby said he thought the taxes were due up until the point that the house sale was finalized.
He said he never heard about the rule of property taxes being exempt for the full year of when the buyout occurs.
“That was never told to us,” Selby said.
Selby added that Franklin County officials must have also been unaware of the rule because the county accepted some of the property tax money without question.
Selby said problems occurred when the title company sent the property tax money to the county. He said the county kept some of the tax money and sent some of it back to the city.
Selby said the money should have stayed with the county rather than being sent back. Since the county would not take the money, the city just held it in escrow, Selby said, adding that no interest was made in the escrow account.
Selby added that it was crucial that all property owners be treated the same in regard to taxing since federal dollars were involved.
The flood buyout program is still not closed out, but the rest of the tax money was turned over to the county this year, Selby said. He said he did not know the total amount of property tax money that was collected from closing on the sales of the homes.
Playing With Money?
Tomnitz said she wants to know why the city was paying taxes to the county on her behalf when the assessor’s office says there were no taxes due in the first place.
She said it makes her feel as though someone is playing around with her money.
County Collector of Revenue Linda Emmons said she thinks about $24,000 in property taxes were collected on the flood buyout properties that should not have been.
Tomnitz said the city took her tax money to the county around Jan. 6.
She then called the county collector and said, “I want my money back.” But Tomnitz said the collector is not ready to turn the money over because the county is still investigating the issue.
Collector Emmons said getting everything figured out has been confusing and that her office is not finished with its investigation.
Tomnitz does not fault the county at all for the matter.
Emmons said her office is pulling deed records to see when ownership of the flood buyout properties was transferred to Pacific. Her office is still waiting on several closing statements from Security Title, Emmons said.
Emmons said she thinks all of the properties in the flood buyout had property taxes collected on them that should not have been. All of those property owners are probably due a refund, Emmons said, adding that none has received anything back yet.
The collector said she wants to figure everything out and give all the money back at once instead of piecemeal. Emmons hopes refunds can be given in a week or two.