Anson County’s tax collection rate currently ranks 90th out of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Frustrated with this statistic and determined to improve Anson’s 92-percent collection rate, tax collector Joe Dutton came up with an innovative program he calls “Anson’s Most Wanted.”
Through this program, the top 25 “most wanted” back taxes — including the taxpayer’s name and the amount he or she owes — are being publicized in an effort to collect those funds.
“Anson’s Most Wanted is a way to make people realize we need those taxes,” Dutton explained. “The current year’s delinquent taxes are printed every year in the newspaper, per general statutes. The statutes don’t require us to send a bill but we do. Once it becomes delinquent for the second year, a lot of people seem to think it gets swept under the rug and we don’t care, but we do care.”
He said that the delinquent taxpayers listed in the top 25 Anson’s Most Wanted receive notices in the mail, although “they apparently ignore them.” He also makes phone calls and has even met with some of them face to face, to no avail. So far, the response from the delinquent taxpayers to the Anson’s Most Wanted program has been “zilch,” Dutton said, but that doesn’t mean it’s not been successful.
“The taxpaying public has expressed their view that these people that are not paying their taxes are making their jobs harder,” he said. “So at least most of the public understands what we’re trying to do.”
When the collection rate is 92 percent, he added, it keeps the tax rates higher than they could be. In fact, the top 25 “Most Wanted” taxes add up to nearly $300,000. County Manager Lawrence Gatewood recently told the county commissioners that if the tax collection rate were improved, he would be able to lower taxes in the county’s budget. But, if the collection rate stays at 92 percent or lower, taxes must remain as high as they are now.
“I liken it to filling up a bucket,” Dutton explained. “We can’t get our current collection rate better until we get the older years collected.”
Dutton said there is no exact science to how the top 25 were picked. “We chose some of the most visible, we chose by the size of the parcel, the largest acreage, the length of time the accounts have been delinquent, the dollar amounts… there were a lot of factors at play,” he said. He added that some may wonder why certain people are not on the list, and that could be because the person is deceased and the estate is in the process of being settled, or that person may have made payment arrangements.
“We’ve notified the taxpayers and citizens that if these taxes are not paid, the property will be auctioned off on the courthouse steps,” Dutton said. “We’d hope that to avoid being on the list, that people would step up and take responsibility.”
Anson’s Most Wanted has captured the attention of other counties across the state, as well as the University of North Carolina School of Government. Chris McLaughlin wrote a blog on the School of Government’s website about the program. “I told Joe I loved the ad, with a few caveats,” McLaughlin wrote. “As I explained in this post, just because the Machinery Act does not discuss ‘most wanted’ ads or other similarly creative approaches to tax collection does not mean that such approaches are forbidden.
“If tax collectors want to rent one of those huge digital billboards on I-40 to post the names of delinquent taxpayers for all to see, I think that would be perfectly legal. But those tax collectors could not pass along the cost of the billboard rentals to the delinquent taxpayers or use the billboards in lieu of the traditional newspaper ad for real property tax liens required by GS 105-369.”
Of course, Dutton is aware that some of the people on the list might not be thrilled with their names and the amount they owe being publicized for all to see. McLaughlin added, “Will Anson County’s ad ruffle some taxpayer feathers? Perhaps, but perhaps that is Joe’s goal. Shaking up taxpayer complacency might do wonders for the county’s tax collection rate.”
Dutton said he’s not sure how long the Anson’s Most Wanted program will stay in place, but for now, it will be indefinitely. “I can see it going on for at least the next year or two,” he said. “And we will update the list when some of them are paid, and add new people to the top 25.”