Effingham County tax commissioner candidates sparred again over customer service at the office during a forum Thursday night.
The two Republican candidates — Linda McDaniel and Frank Arden — will see tonight who gets the chance to take on Democratic incumbent Lisa Wright in November. But they continued to assail Wright on what they say is a lack of customer service at the tax commissioner’s office.
“There is a misconception that we in Effingham County are backwards because we are a rural county,” said McDaniel, currently working with the Effingham Chamber of Commerce. “That is not true. We have done our citizens an injustice by not keeping up with technology.”
Arden and McDaniel have both campaigned on instituting online payments of taxes and they have each acknowledged that kind of service may not be for everyone.
“My parents would not want it,” McDaniel, a Guyton native, said.
But for those folks more at ease using a computer, and with gas at $4 a gallon, “this is crucial,” she said.
Arden said Effingham County needs good government.
“It’s a broad term,” said the former banker and current self-employed financial analyst, “but it means electing the right people for the office, who are qualified for the position.”
Arden said he wants to set up a Web site that will allow for online payment of taxes, inform people of how their tax dollars are doled out and show 10-year trends of property values and taxes. He also promised to improve the relationship between taxpayers and tax commissioner’s office staff.
“And when you walk in there, you’re going to find someone to talk to,” he said. “You’re going to find a friendly staff.”
Arden also once served on the county’s planning board but was asked by county commissioners to resign his post in June 2006.
“I had some issues with the county over growth at the time,” he said.
Wright, despite not facing any opposition in the primary, attempted to defend her office’s reputation.
“Customer service is certainly what we do, all day, every day,” she said. “I think there are misconceptions about customer service. We are helpful to the citizens.”
Wright said some people may be upset with the tax commissioner’s office for reasons such as not being able to release a property tax penalty or informing them they don’t have all the paperwork in hand to get a new car tag.
“We work hard every day on customer service,” she said. “The girls felt they had been doing a good job. We are courteous and we treat people fairly.”
Wright also tried to counter claims about her frequent absences from the office.
“If someone wants to see me in the office, they can see me any time,” she said.
Each of her prospective opponents continued to charge that customer service needs to be, and will be if they are elected, improved.
“There is a difference in serving customers and customer service,” McDaniel said. “You treat them with dignity and you send them away not feeling they have been lambasted. I have received numerous calls from people about the service they have received.”
McDaniel said that at the Chamber office the importance of courtesy is impressed upon the office staff.
“We tell our people, ‘you are setting the tone for how people see the entire county,’” she said.
Arden drew upon his experiences in banking on the importance of customer service.
“The most important thing is you treat anyone who walks in there with respect,” he said. “The bottom line is about that person walking in there.”
Arden said he also will work to collect delinquent taxes and to improve the county’s collection rate. Currently, the county’s tax collection rate is 95 percent.
“A 1 percent delinquency rate in banking is fatal,” he said. “I will be firm but I will be fair. If they are slackers, I’m sorry, they’re going to have pay up or their property is going to be sold.”
Arden also said he would try to be understanding on some situations.
“People now can’t pay their taxes because of backdoor tax increases when the valuations went up,” he said.
Wright said Arden’s numbers on how much the county collects in property tax, which he pegged at approximately $45 million a year, were inaccurate, but she said she was not comfortable discussing how much comes into her office.
McDaniel and Arden also continued to question why the tax commissioner’s office hasn’t moved forward with online services for taxpayers.
“You can go through the GIS and look up property records. But you can’t pay tax bills, you can’t pay for car tags,” McDaniel said. “If it’s possible for a small company to do this, surely a county government can do it.”
Said Arden: “I agree with Mrs. McDaniel. It’s done everywhere. The fact that it’s not done in Effingham County amazes me. We’re behind the times. I’ve already talked to 15 different tax commissioners across Georgia who have this.”
On his plans for the tax commissioners’ Web site beyond online payments, Arden said the school system has a very good Web site.
“But one thing you can’t find is how they spend your money,” he said.
Wright said there are plans to build up the tax commissioner’s office Web site, but it’s being held up by contractual problems.
“The tax assessor went with a company to put their information up for free,” she said. “The company we were working with got their feelings hurt, and I don’t blame them. I would like to get that resolved soon.”
McDaniel countered that her information is that no such contract exists.
“The work stopped because there was no more funding from the tax commissioner’s office,” she said. “I would like to see that contract.”
McDaniel, who also has worked for the school system and the district attorney’s office, also intimated that a banking and finance background isn’t necessary to run the tax commissioner’s office.
“I can count money,” she said. “My years of public service has taught me the people is who you serve. The people come first.”
Wright has been with the tax commissioner’s office for 20 years, starting as a tag agent. She said the property tax due date was changed from just before to Christmas to November in response to citizens’ requests. She also said she has come up with payment plans for property taxpayers.
“I do not take this responsibility lightly,” she said.