Two of Beaufort County’s top elected officials are publicly bumping heads in a power struggle over who has more authority when it comes to property tax billing and collection.
A spat between Beaufort County Auditor Jim Beckert and Treasurer Maria Walls came to a boiling point — voices dripping with annoyance and faces masked in frustration — during a Beaufort County Council Finance Committee meeting earlier this week.
I think there is a total breakdown of communication between the auditor’s office and the treasurer’s office.
Beaufort County Administrator Gary Kubic
At the heart of the issue is a disagreement over the autonomy of the respective offices and what role each should play in setting deadlines, printing and mailing tax bills, and collecting revenue.
When asked Tuesday whether their professional differences stem from any personal animosity, Walls said she “can’t comment on that because I never had a personal or professional relationship with him before he took office” last year.
Beckert said, “Controversy can be a good thing as long as people can deal with it in a professional way.
“But I don’t believe things are getting personal — and I hope that doesn’t happen,” he said.
In previous years, the treasurer’s office has been responsible for printing and mailing tax bills, which Walls said are typically sent out by late October or early November.
Beckert is pushing for his office — which is traditionally in charge of calculating how much tax property owners owe — to take over the printing of bills and implement a strict mailing deadline of Sept. 30.
He argued this earlier deadline is mandated by state law and would provide taxpayers with more time to make their payments, which are due by Jan. 15.
By taking over the printing and mailing of bills, Beckert’s office could control additional purse strings during next fiscal year’s budgeting process. The county pays an annual contract of nearly $250,000 to have tax bills generated by a private firm, county administrator Gary Kubic said.
Beckert’s proposal also could potentially cut the treasurer’s office out of the collaborative process of ensuring tax rolls are accurate and preparations to begin collecting payments are complete.
In past years, the tax rolls have gone from the auditor’s office to the treasurer to double-check for inconsistencies.
Walls said Tuesday that, if she feels like a policy is potentially detrimental to county residents, “I will fight that with every last breath that I have.”
Once the bills are mailed, Walls would be required by law to begin collecting tax payments, regardless of whether her office is ready to start processing payments, she said.
“When tax bills can be generated without the participation and approval of the person that is going to collect (the taxes), we have a serious issue in our county,” Walls said.
The state laws Beckert says grant his office more power are vague, outdated and don’t establish “the type of authority that Mr. Beckert is insinuating that he has,” she said.
Both administration officials and County Council members admonished both sides for lack of cooperation.
“I’m going to speak frankly — I think there is a total breakdown of communication between the auditor’s office and the treasurer’s office,” Kubic said.
Councilman Jerry Stewart questioned “why there is so much confusion and bickering” between the two elected officials.
Kubic, an administrator stuck between two feuding elected officials, appears to have found himself in a position without much leverage.
Walls and Beckert “are elected officials,” he said. “So, there’s a possibility (common ground will be reached), and there is a possibility it won’t.”
Beaufort County Council members — also elected by county voters — do have some power to force a compromise.
Kubic and County Council members agreed to meet in early September to discuss ways the auditor’s and treasurer’s offices could work together better. Also on the table is the possibility of drafting an ordinance that would establish specific roles and procedures for each office.
If the two offices can’t work out it out, the council will work it out for them, Stewart said, “and probably nobody is going to like what we decide.”