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August 22, 2005

Slip Sliding Away

Editorial

Many Frederick County residents are upset with the county government because the checks they mailed in to pay their real estate taxes have not cleared their banks more than a month after they were submitted. Frankly, so are we at The Tentacle.

The county treasurer - Mary C. Jackman - mailed out 84,000 property tax bills on July 1. As every homeowner knows, that is also the day those bills are due and payable, although interest penalties don't begin until October. Banks and mortgage companies pay approximately 30,000 of these bills and they are processed by the county immediately upon receipt, or shortly thereafter.

Of the 54,000 remaining bills, approximately 20,000 were paid between July 3 and August 12. About 1,000 of those were personally delivered to the county treasurer's office in Winchester Hall and were posted and the money deposited in the bank, although some checks didn't clear taxpayers' bank account for more than a week.

However, only half of the remaining 19,000 payments received before August 12 were processed. And all payments received after July 21 - and before August 12 - were sent to a firm the county hired on August 11 to process the payments. This is called a lock box company and it operates much the same as the one hired to handle county water and sewer bills.

Taxpayers in Frederick County will be paying this lock box company $61,000 over the next year to do the job previous treasurers did without spending those kinds of dollars. In addition, the taxpayers lost thousands of dollars in interest on those undeposited checks.

The average tax bill this year is approximately $2,500. Multiplying that amount times the number of unprocessed payments (9,500) comes up to $23,750,000 sitting idly by. At just 3 percent interest per annum, the amount of money lost to county coffers rises to more than $59,000.

We wonder where the treasurer, the chief of the county finance department - Joe Zimmerman - and County Manager Doug Browning were while this was happening.

The county has certainly faced a deluge of tax payments like this in the past. Two former "elected" treasurers told The Tentacle that they hired temporary help each year in July and August to guarantee timely deposits of all property tax payments. The payments might not have been posted immediately, but the money was put in the bank in order to earn interest to - at least - offset the cost of the temporary employees.

There is no acceptable excuse for this excess of our government. Our taxes continue to rise. The county commissioners see fit to return only $3 million of a $26 million surplus to the taxpayers. And then we learn that another $120,000 is being spent - or lost - just to process the hard earned tax dollars submitted to pay property taxes.

Heads should roll. And someone other than the taxpayers of Frederick County should be made to pay for this incompetence.



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