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County auditor: 80 percent of bills wrong
By GARY HENDERSON Staff Writer Spartanburg County Auditor Sarah Broyles says 80 percent of the first 10,000 vehicle tax bills she's checked for January and February were incorrect.
Broyles said another 20,000 bills for the same period still have to be reviewed.
The billing problems were caused by 4,700 erroneous assessment values in the state Department of Revenue's tax guide books.
"Most of the assessments were too high," Broyles said. "But some people are going to be surprised because we've also found values that came in too low. Those (errors) will be corrected, too."
Other auditors in the state report a similar number of mistakes in the renewal notices they've mailed to taxpayers.
Charleston County Auditor Peggy Mosley notified state officials about the problems with assessments late last year.
Yet Mosley said the vehicle assessments were wrong on at least 75 percent of the 60,000 bills her office has sent to taxpayers since December.
The tedious task of going through each January and February tax statement will delay the normal mailing cycles for March and April renewal notices in many of the state's 46 counties, including Spartanburg.
"It will be at least mid-March before we start mailing," Broyles said. "April will be right behind them."
The mailing delays could cause problems for motorists whose license plates expire before they get their bills.
State revenue officials have requested that state troopers not write tickets for the expired tags until department workers are able to finish correcting the mistakes they made.
"State law does not allow us to waive that," said Highway Patrol spokesman Sid Gaulden. "We're still trying to figure out what we can do. It will probably take special legislation that will have to be pushed through. But still, it will require three readings to become law."
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 24, 2000
State disciplines employees in tax goof By DIANE NORMAN Middle Tyger Bureau Editor
State workers knew in early January that vehicle tax valuations were seriously flawed, but they didn't tell the director of the Department of Revenue until reporters began asking about mistakes.
A Feb. 8 phone call from a Herald-Journal reporter gave ranking tax officials their first inkling that problems with the year 2000 assessments were more than a minor computer glitch, said Department of Revenue spokeswoman Vicki Ringer.
But employees in the department's property division had known for weeks that they had serious errors in the guide that counties use to determine vehicle tax bills.
The Department of Revenue has taken disciplinary action against four employees involved in the mistakes, Ringer said.
A Jan. 5 electronic message from Albert Reed, property division administrator, to Sanford Houck Jr., property division manager, states that Reed just learned that the vehicle valuation system is "broke."
The admission came one day after Richland County tax officials met with the revenue department to complain about the assessment guide. After that meeting, property division employees told Revenue Director Elizabeth Carpentier that the problems had been addressed.
In the e-mail, Reed tells Houck that Carpentier "has already been down to see me once about this; I assured her we had things under control -- my fault for indicating such when we apparently do not."
But neither man rushed to tell Carpentier the truth, according to the department's internal audit.
"Employees that were aware of it did not share it with the director of the agency," Ringer said.
Reed's electronic message was released to reporters Wednesday in response to the Herald-Journal's Freedom of Information Act request for all e-mail related to the assessment problem.
Ringer said the employees weren't trying to hide the problems -- they just thought they could handle the situation on their own.
"They just didn't communicate properly," Ringer said.
The manager who supervised production of the flawed guide book was suspended without pay for five days, demoted from his supervisory post and transferred to a field office.
Three other employees were reprimanded and ordered to take corrective action. They will receive additional training and be subject to weekly evaluations.
In addition, two clerical workers who entered incorrect data left the Department of Revenue voluntarily.
At least 4,700 vehicle values were incorrect in the agency guide books, which contain 11,600 listings.
The incorrect guides already had been used to compute January and February tax notices in most counties before the revenue department recognized the errors.
Officials are still working to determine how many automobile owners may have been overcharged because of the mistakes.
Spartanburg County Auditor Sarah Broyles said Tuesday that 80 percent of the first 10,000 bills her office has checked contained errors. Another 20,000 Spartanburg County vehicle tax bills must be examined.
"We are deeply troubled by the problems our mistakes have caused," department director Carpentier said in a prepared statement. "I apologize to everyone who has been affected."
The department has corrected the errors and delivered new lists to the counties for future car tax bills.
Carpentier also has offered each county the use of a state employee to assist with sending out refunds, and the state will pay counties $1 for each refund check they issue.
"We are working to make this right for everyone," Carpentier said. "And I pledge to you that this will not happen again."
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), February 24, 2000.