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Collections at heart of tax position
Incumbent, challenger spell out their differences
0710 john kieffer
John Kieffer

A candidate for Effingham County tax commissioner promises to make changes to the office if he is elected. The incumbent says that a number of positive steps have already been taken under her watch.

Speaking at the recent candidates’ forum hosted by the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce, challenger John Kieffer pledged to improve customer service at the tax commissioner’s office, tighten its budget and improve the rate of county tax collections.

“The tax commissioner’s office currently has a collection rate of 93 percent collections. The 93 percent collection rate leaves $3.2 million in unclaimed taxes for 2011 alone,” Kieffer said.

However, incumbent tax commissioner Linda McDaniel said she has improved the office’s technology and its employees’ accountability, making it a much more productive and efficient office than the one she walked into four years ago.

“All these changes were implemented while I maintained at least a 95 percent or better collection rate in real property taxes. I checked this morning and it was 97 percent,” she said.

According to McDaniel, the office’s equipment was so outdated when she started that staff members were using typewriters and sharing computers. But in her first term, she said updated the software used for computing taxes, installed computers for the window clerks to make transactions easier and more efficient, implemented credit card payment capabilities at the window and over the internet or phone, and created a website for taxpayers to pay vehicle tag and property taxes online.

Possibly the most important improvement, though, McDaniel said, was making employees accountable for the funds they collect. She said the funds the employees have in their possession at the end of each day are balanced against a report generated by the tax software system. The reports and the money are then taken to a supervisor who verifies their totals, and then another person makes the bank deposit.

“When I last ran for office, my platform was to restore customer service to the office and to make credit cards a reality,” McDaniel said. “Customer service has improved, and the staff know that is an expectation.”

Kieffer still sees room for improvement, however. He said “exemplary customer service is the most important soft skill that employees of the tax commissioner’s office should possess.”

Kieffer cited his experience managing “as many as 40 employees” as a small business owner and pledged to provide customer service training to all employees of the tax commissioner’s office.

“Employees possessing proper soft skills will create a pleasant atmosphere for all the taxpayers of Effingham County,” Kieffer said. “I understand that paying property taxes and paying ad valorem taxes on your automobiles can be a daunting task. However, I feel when you are greeted by well-trained and knowledgeable employees that possess exemplary customer service, it can be a less-frustrating experience.”

Kieffer said he sympathizes with all the local property owners who have been hurt by the prolonged recession, but said the tax commissioner’s office still has a job to do. He pledged to work with anyone who sets up a payment plan to pay their property taxes, “but they must adhere to that property tax payment plan.”

That led Kieffer to discuss tax lien sales. He said Effingham County has many properties with unpaid taxes, including some that “owe taxes for four and five years or more,” and in many cases the property owner has made no attempt to pay those taxes.

“Effingham County is a close-knit community and tax lien sales are a difficult issue to deal with, but I will follow procedures in the execution of tax lien sales,” he said. “With the budget constraints our county is experiencing, it is very important that the tax commissioner be diligent in the duty of tax collection. I will pursue all avenues available to collect the taxes owed to the state of Georgia, Effingham County and the Effingham County Board of Education.”

McDaniel said the county’s property tax payment program currently has 535 delinquent taxpayers, who are monitored closely to ensure their payments are made. “If they don’t pay, then it is withdrawn,” she said.

McDaniel added that the downturn in the economy has caused an increase in bankruptcy filings. Effingham County has 395 properties under bankruptcy, which McDaniel said “freezes any attempt that we have to collect taxes.”

“I have tried to show grace and compassion in my job for those who are suffering through the economic times and the loss of a job, but I know that I have to collect taxes — and I will collect taxes,” she said.

McDaniel and Kieffer will oppose each other in the July 31 Republican primary. The winner will not have Democratic opposition in the November general election.