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Services, work schedule dominate tax commissioner talk
07.03 forum 1
Flanked by incumbent tax commissioner Lisa Wright, left, and Republican challenger Linda McDaniel, right, Republican tax commissioner hopeful Frank Arden speaks at a candidates’ forum Tuesday night. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Effingham County tax commissioner Republican candidates said they would improve customer service and would be a constant presence at the tax commissioners’ office, charges the incumbent tried to rebuff.

Before a crowd of more than 300 people at South Effingham High School, Republicans Frank Arden and Linda McDaniel said they would push to get online payment of taxes and car tags.

“I think it’s very important,” McDaniel said. “You ought to be able to pay your taxes online.”

Said Arden: “This is going on all over the country. I think just about anywhere in the free world you can do that, except in Effingham County.”

McDaniel said she spoke with a young couple that had recently moved to the county, and “they were astounded to learn they had to take a day off of work to go to register their car when they moved to Effingham. We can improve on this.

“I have seen Effingham County nearly double in population in the last 15 years, and little has been done to improve the services to the citizens,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel decried the tax commissioner’s Web site, noting all it does is tell you how to get to the office.

“I think there needs to be a little more than that on the Web site,” she said.

Wright said her department’s Web site does have a list of frequently asked questions dealing with property taxes, homestead exemptions and car tags.

“There is a good bit of information on the Web site,” she said. “We have been developing with other offices in the annex some information to put the tax digest online. We’re in a holding pattern now because of some contractual problems. It would show accounts that are paid, accounts that are delinquent, and you will be able eventually to make payments online.”

Wright said the county was in contract negotiations with a company about putting tax information online, but another company offered to do it for free.

“It really ended up sabotaging our project,” she said.

Arden and McDaniel also are calling for tax and tag payments to be made via credit or debit cards and other online banking services. Wright said a trial run with credit and debit card payments proved to be too difficult to handle, since the office couldn’t balance the books at the end of each day because of the lag time in receiving payments from credit and debit card providers.

“The public loved it. It was great,” she said. “But it was hard to balance. We incurred over $40,000 in bank fees.”

Wright also defended herself against charges that she is frequently not at the office.

“I am there daily,” she said, “and there are times when I have to attend meetings or I have to go to different offices to take care of business. If anyone has ever stopped by and left a message they would like to see me, I certainly can arrange my schedule to meet with them.

“My girls are trained to help. They do it all day long. It is important that even if I am not present, my office continues to operate. That office has to operate whether I am there or not. I have to go to school and I have to go to training.”

McDaniel said the tax commissioner needs to be at the office as much as possible to support the staff there and to answer the questions that come up every day.

“To provide these services, you have to be there and you have to be supportive,” she said. “They need to be trained. They need to be able to go off to school to be trained, and I don’t think that’s being done.

“I believe it is the responsibility of the tax commissioner to operate the office as a business, to attend work daily and to operate the office in a professional manner that would be cost effective to the citizens of Effingham County.

Taxpayers also leave the tax commissioner’s office with a bad feeling about how their matters were handled, according to McDaniel

“Too many times, they are very discouraged,” she said, “and they have to go back and forth two and three times.”

“When people come in with problems, they are intimidated,” Arden said. “They don’t understand it.”

Wright responded that her top three employees attend continuing education classes through the University of Georgia.

She also explained that some people have to make multiple trips because they are inquiring on a tax matter on behalf of another party.

Arden said the position can be an advocate for taxpayers and said tax commissioners can collect data and provide statistics at their discretion. A Web site could be used to deliver that kind of information, and information on such things as the impact of the Carter-Burns Act, on taxpayers.

“I think it would be interesting to do it and find statistics on taxes, where they come from, trends over the years, where perhaps it is going and where your money is spent by other local governments,” he said. “I’m talking about information on taxes in general, showing you how you can save money on your taxes and a discussion of the Carter-Burns Act.

The Carter-Burns Act, which provides a homestead exemption based on the difference between a current assessment and an assessment on an adjusted base year. The measure will be on the Nov. 4 ballot as a referendum.

“It would force local governments, if they were going to raise taxes, they would have to come to your front door and not get this tax windfall through the back door,” Arden said. “That’s what happens when taxes increase because of increased assessments and valuations. It’s too bad we didn’t have that in place a few years ago.”