Watching corrupt local governments is a hobby of mine. I grew up about fifty miles from Chicago, where’s it’s not just a spectator sport; it’s a damned contact sport. Plus, growing up in Porter County Indiana, where the red state of Indiana meets the blue forces of the Unionized mills . . .
. . . well, let’s just say Thanksgiving was always interesting.
So it’s been with not small amount of familiarity I’ve been watching the battle at the porter Assessor’s Office over the Tax Bills. A brief recap; first, there was the morass that was the Assessor’s Office. Previous Assessors had mad so many deductions, loopholes, and one-time exceptions” to the tax code that a house next door to another on Jefferson Street in Valparaiso (like, for instance, my grandmother’s) paid several thousand dollars in taxes annually, while the house next door had not paid taxes since the county’s founding in the 1830’s.
So, figure you have (a) an antiquated assessment and billing system, (b) the addition of a TIF and some big box stores in the last few years, and (c) an Assessor’s Office without the support of the County Commissioners, and you have one big can of worms. That’s why an accounting firm was hired to try to straighten out the bills and get them current.
A new contract with Crowe Chizek, an accounting/consultant firm with offices in Merrillville, was approved by the Porter County Commissioners this week. It has an estimated cost of $56,000 to $103,000 for several tax-related tasks. Officials previously approved $222,000 for the team of consultants, which was allocated in two rounds. The initial payment of $72,000 was funded with commissioners funds and the county assessor’s reassessment fund, while the second round of funding set aside $150,000 from the county’s economic development income tax.
If the most recent contract is finalized by the County Council, it will bring the consultants’ total estimated pay to $278,000 to $325,000.
The contract details the work Crowe Chizek will provide, which includes integrating a new computer software system, validating existing data and making sure all aspects of tax collection comply with new state requirements.
“The requirements are changing constantly,” said consultant Beth Henkel, former commissioner with the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. “The settlement (method) changes every six months, the forms we have to use get changed constantly and it’s because of the DLGF and the state Legislature. “Henkel said the firm also will offer technical assistance with this year’s settlement, deductions and TIF allocations. The firm will make sure TIF districts are funded at appropriate levels, she said.
The software program (Porter County Assessor John Scott) opted for, after a lengthy battle with other county officials, has not only worked fine, but was among the first certified by the state.
Scott said Thursday his concerns involving Hamer Enterprises of Texas arose after he researched the company and learned a community in Wisconsin was having problems with the software.
When the county commissioners agreed to purchase the Hamer software for the auditor and treasurer’s offices in May 2007, Scott opposed the choice for his office, saying Hamer had not responded to requests for information or additional visits.
The debate boiled over in May 2007 when all but two county council members voted to take the unusual move of purchasing the Hamer software for the assessor’s office and each of the township assessors without Scott’s support.
Scott won out a year later when a tax consultant hired by the county said she shared some of Scott’s concerns about Hamer and supported the idea of evaluating a different software provider. The commissioners agreed in May to purchase assessing software from Indiana-based X-Soft
So, in short, the County Commissioners tried to usurp the authority of the County Assessor by purchasing software to do the assessor’s job – which the assessor refused to use because it was inadequate (as an outside tax consultant agreed.)
I did a brief web search on this Hamer Enetrpises, and found this page:
“My wife and I started this company based on what we perceived as a need,” said Hamer, a low-key businessman who prefers to keep his company out of the spotlight. An accountant by trade, he formed a bookkeeping company in 1975 called Hamer Enterprises and hired a computer programmer to automate his practice.
Today, some of the world’ most expensive real estate — including Silicon Valley and downtown San Francisco’s landmark TransAmerica building — are on tax rolls that are supported by Easy Access’ software.
”In Los Angeles, what we do is actually assess the property and determine the value of the property, and specifically, it is for the unsecured property (furniture and equipment),” Hamer said. Easy Access also has developed a successful tax billing and collection system that mails out each bill to the property owner and allows the bank to receive the tax revenue directly from the taxpayer, then deposit the money electronically.
Did you catch the two key phrases here? The first was “specifically, it is for the unsecured property (furniture and equipment).” This tax software was designed to assess and tax the value of not just your property, but also your home, your refrigerator, your TV, and the clothes on your backs.
The second key phrase is “allows the bank to receive the tax revenue directly from the taxpayer, then deposit the money electronically.” Electronic payments will greatly speed up the payments of taxes, in particular from properties that have their taxes tied up in their home’s escrow. Electronic billing and payments means bills today, payments tomorrow. Which (again) is something the County Commissioners desire.
So now, with the new software and a team of accountants working round the clock, the tax bills should be done any time now, right? Uhmmm . . . No, not really:
County officials say it is unlikely they will be able to mail out the 2008 tax bills next week as hoped.
Completion of the bills continues to be held by bugs in the county’s new tax software program and long-standing problems that have resulted in years of inaccurate calculations, County Auditor James Kopp said. Kopp and other county officials spent an hour discussing the ongoing problems Friday on a conference call with the county tax consultant and the makers of the software in question, Hamer Enterprises in Texas.
“This is a very complicated computer system,” he said. County Treasurer James Murphy agreed. “My complaint was, ‘Can’t we solve more than one issue a week?‘ ” he said following the teleconference call.
Yes, you read that one highlighted passage correctly. The County Commissioners approved the purchase of the Hamer Enterprises software; the one NOT approved by the state; for the Assessor’s Office in Porter County. And even though they’re going to buy the X-Soft software, they’re still using the Hamer Enterprises Software.
Did I get any of that wrong? I’ve read these articles until I’m blue in the face, and this is the only conclusion I can find. Does this remind anyone of the Animal Shelter fiasco, which I’ve documentedHERE, HERE, and HERE.
Why are the County Commissioners micromanaging everything in their path? Why have they bought unapproved software for use in Porter County? Why isn’t the County Assessor being allowed to do his job?
You’d have to ask the County Commissioners. And they don’t appear to be talking . . . or answerable to us.