Nearly $168,000 owed to county for taxes on personal property

Published 12:01 pm Tuesday, July 20, 2010

More than two-thirds of delinquent personal property tax debt in Warren County has been paid in the past year, but the balance will remain a popular talking point among supervisors as they craft a budget for 2011.

Figures from the Tax Collector’s Office show $168,744.78 is owed on personal property, which means all items within a structure not built onto land, most often inventories kept by a business. Physical structures such as houses and buildings are defined as real property. The total reflects debts and penalties of the 2006 through 2008 tax years and is 68 percent smaller than a year ago when supervisors began a push to collect in the face of shrinking revenue derived from the state.

That push has revealed disagreements between supervisors who approve budgeting based on multiple revenue sources and the sheriff’s department, still designated in state law as the enforcement entity for the “stuff tax” despite the decades that have elapsed since sheriffs in Mississippi collected all taxes.

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“What worries me is that a couple of them owe a pile of money,” District 4 Supervisor Bill Lauderdale said of the remaining slate of 147 parcels owing amounts varying from less than $1,000 to more than $30,000. “It’s not fair to those who pay it. I’m not for people going out of business, but it’s the principle of not paying.”

State law also allows seizures or lockouts if authorities believe the debtor is a flight risk, a process that starts by filing a notice of tax lien with the Circuit Clerk’s Office and issuing a “jeopardy warrant” if the office believes collection of taxes will be jeopardized by delay. Personal property taxes must be paid by Oct. 1 before any court action begins for a current year, Tax Collector Antonia Flaggs Jones said.

Once served, any personal property seized can be sold at public auction until all the debt and related expenses are satisfied. No padlocks have been affixed to any businesses this year, as Sheriff Martin Pace has chosen to apply the law in an advisory way instead of a punitive one.

Jones said 90 such liens filed in court covered 2008, and that the total of liens has not varied much in her 15 years working in the tax collector’s office.

Pace indicated the job of organizing the warrants for service has continued, though at a clip slower than the liens. Of 57 warrants reported to have been considered this fiscal year, deputies attempted to serve at least 32 of them, officials said. The department acknowledged the other 25 await determination on whether it’s feasible to pursue them.

“A lot of papers we’ve gotten is where the business no longer exists,” Pace said, placing an emphasis on cases he said are too tough to enforce due to logistics. “On those one person owns the building and someone else had the business, there’s no way to contact them. We’re not driving to Orlando to serve one.”

In May, an attorney general’s opinion requested by the county — at Pace’s behest — reaffirmed the little-used state law’s intent to have the sheriff as the enforcement arm on personal property taxes.