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Counties target tax scofflaws.

Byline: Christian Hill The Register-Guard

Faced with tight budgets, tax assessors in Lane and six other counties are joining forces. Their first order of business: hunting for tax scofflaws.

The first project for the new coalition is to identify businesses not paying taxes on personal property: equipment, supplies, computers and other items that aren't bolted down in a business. State law requires all businesses to report their personal property and pay taxes on it if the value exceeds $16,000.

State lawmakers awarded a $252,000 grant to Lane County to lead a pilot project over the next year to identify and notify these tax scofflaws in the seven counties that make up the new Southwest Oregon Assessment and Taxation Coalition. In addition to Lane, members of the coalition are Coos, Curry, Douglas, Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties.

Some businesses either don't report or underreport personal property, either willfully or out of professed ignorance, local assessors say.

Lane County Assessor Mike Cowles said this not only strips counties, cities, school districts and other public agencies of money but is unfair - a business that doesn't pay all of its required taxes has a competitive advantage over one that does.

Local assessors say the reporting of personal property is based on the honor system and they haven't had the time or manpower to make sure businesses uphold their end of the bargain. Their employees are busy appraising real property and new construction, they say. For Lane County, personal property represents less than 5 percent of its tax roll but still represents needed revenue for the local governments.

"It's always been one of those backburner jobs," Coos County Assessor Steve Jansen said. "It's not high visibility, and it's a real chore."

He said his office has half the number of employees that it did 12 years ago while the number of tax accounts has increased during the same period.

"We're not unique," he said.

Cowles is hiring a full-time appraiser and four temporary employees to run the project and shifting another current employee from his office.

The project should be up and running within the next month, he said.

First, the team will develop a database using public and commercially available data to identify businesses that should be paying personal property taxes but aren't. They will send a letter and a personal property tax form to nonfilers. They will also launch a public relations campaign to inform businesses about the tax law.

Second, they will start contacting businesses that aren't paying to remind them of the law.

Lastly, the employees will visit businesses to check the accuracy of their personal property tax returns.

Jim Johnson, a former Lane County administrator and Eugene city manager who works at Portland State University, will evaluate the project.

The coalition may offer an amnesty program to reduce the penalties and interest businesses would otherwise owe for not paying their personal property taxes previously.

It'll be up to the individual counties to get businesses to pay up if they haven't been, but Cowles and Jansen expect some businesses will step forward voluntarily. Cowles said it's too early to estimate how much additional tax revenue could go into the coffers of local counties.

"Once it's on the roll, it's perpetual revenue," he said.

For its next project, the coalition is interested in having member counties who have appraisers for commercial and industrial properties share them with other members who don't.

That work would build off something Coos County already has been doing. Jansen said his commercial and industrial appraiser has trained people in Curry County's thinly staffed assessor's office, and his office is planning to do those type of appraisals in Douglas County.

Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken, whose idea led to the coalition and helped secure the state funding, said the financial realities facing counties demand innovative ideas.

"All governments are going to be struggling with revenue," he said. "The more we can find common themes to collaborate on, then the more successfully we can deliver services."

If the pilot project is successful, Leiken said there could be discussions about other departments in different counties joining forces, such as the sheriff's or district attorney's offices.

"I don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but this could be a prime example of how other services could be delivered," he said.

Tax answers

Businesses with questions about their personal property tax can call Lane County Assessment and Taxation, 541-682-4321, or email assessor@co.lane.or.us. The office is closed on Friday.
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Title Annotation:Lane County Government; Lane and six other counties team up to pursue businesses that aren't paying their personal property tax
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 27, 2014
Words:754
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