Beaufort County Treasurer Doug Henderson's late-fee amnesty brought in late payers, but the marginal financial difference to the county is a bit hard to sort out.
The Treasurer's Office reported that 2,473 payments came in during the amnesty period -- Aug. 22 to Sept. 2 -- and about $3.35 million was collected.
The "amnesty" consisted of waiving late fees of $75 or $125 (if you waited until Sept. 1 or 2 to pay). About $250,000 in fees were waived. Taxypayers still had to pay interest on the amount owed.
The late fees are used to cover the expense of going after delinquent taxes. That means the cost to do so should be reduced by getting people to pay up. How much isn't clear.
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But most of the money collected during the two weeks came from taxpayers who owed 2010 taxes. In fact, they accounted for $3.2 million of the $3.35 million total.
Long lines at the Treasurer's Office in the run up to the annual delinquent tax sale on the first Monday of October are not unusual. The number still owing taxes usually drops substantially during the month of September as people seek to keep their property off the auction block.
The rush might have come earlier this year because of the amnesty on late fees. More than 3,800 delinquent accounts were listed in a tax sale ad published Sunday.
Last year, the mid-September total of delinquent tax bills was about 4,900. By the Oct. 4 sale, the number had dropped to about 1,600.
People walking in the door to pay their bills almost certainly is a more straightforward, less complicated and -- one would think -- less expensive way for the county to collect the money. The question is how many would have walked in the door without the amnesty incentive.
And as for the late fees, that money generally doesn't go into the county's general fund. The fees are to be used to pay for collecting delinquent taxes.
In 2010, the account totaled about $1.5 million. At the end of the 2011 fiscal year, it was about $657,000 after former treasurer Joy Logan transferred $1.1 million to the county general fund, according to David Starkey, the county's chief financial officer. That was to make up for charging taxpayers less to pay by credit card than the service cost the county.
Tom Henrikson, the former county chief financial officer, told council members in 2008 that the money was kept in a separate account because the fees charged were to be commensurate with the cost of collecting delinquent taxes, as required by law. The then-growing surplus indicated that more was being collected than needed.
County Council members, some of whom questioned the fees in 2008, should make sure they are set to cover costs. The goal should be to get taxes collected, not build a bank account.
As for Henderson's amnesty, clearing the decks on years-old debt is a good idea, but it shouldn't have to be done every year.
And the results of this first-time amnesty on late fees suggest it largely affects current debt, not old debt.
A post-mortem after the tax sale should be done to give us a better read on how this idea fared.