Franklin County officials involved in a controversy over property taxes came together for a discussion this week.
“I guess the reason why we’re here is because of the information that was in the audit,” Presiding County Commissioner John Griesheimer said.
The county’s outside audit found that “tax abatements have been occurring in the county collector’s office without following the proper approval process.”
Collector of Revenue Linda Emmons has acknowledged to The Missourian that her office adjusted certain taxpayers’ tax bills. But she said she adjusted the bills because the assessor’s office prior to Assessor Tom Copeland’s tenure erroneously inflated some property values.
Copeland recently issued a news release accusing Emmons of violating state law for adjusting property values or abating taxes for certain taxpayers.
But Emmons has said she was told by an official in the assessor’s office before Copeland’s tenure that she could issue refunds if the assessor’s office had overvalued taxpayers’ property.
The audit recommended that the software in the collector’s office be upgraded so the collector’s office cannot make changes to assessed values.
First District County Commissioner Tim Brinker said he is looking for a “plan of action from this point forward,” adding, “I think it’s definitely manageable and doable.”
The audit found that the assessor sets the value and the collector collects the money, Copeland said.
But Emmons said, “There are cases when we have to refund money though.”
County Counselor Mark Vincent said money can only be refunded after going through the proper channels.
The collector should not change property values, Vincent said, adding that there is a legal process that taxpayers must go through to dispute values.
The audit found that the software system used by the collector’s office should be integrated with the assessor’s office.
Emmons noted that other counties have spent between $1.5 million and $2.5 million installing software programs.
But her office’s computer programmer, Dave Boushie, said the existing software program can be modified.
Griesheimer said the software compatibility problem has been “an issue for several years, and the bottom line is that we’ve got to make these two systems talk to each other. I cannot believe with the technology that we have out there that we cannot make that happen.”
County Information Technology Director Larry Sikes said the collector’s computer system and the assessor’s system already communicate.
“Every single day, they talk all day long,” Sikes said.
Vincent asked Sikes what needs to be done to the collector’s computer system to prevent the collector’s office from adjusting the value of properties.
Sikes responded, “You’ve got a big problem there.”
For instance, Sikes said if an incorrect bill is already paid, a whole new set of problems is presented.
“What do you do if the bill is paid?” Sikes asked. “Do you refund it and issue them a new bill?”
But Vincent said there needs to be a better understanding of how property values can be legally adjusted. There are only certain ways that property values can be changed, Vincent said.
If people disagree with the value of their property they can meet with the assessor, Vincent said. It is possible that the property owner could reach an agreement with the assessor right then and have the value adjusted, Vincent said.
However, if that does not work there are other avenues that property owners can pursue to have values adjusted, Vincent said.
The taxpayer can go before the county’s board of equalization or appeal to the State Tax Commission, Vincent said.