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Putnam hires firm to pursue delinquent property taxes

January 17, 2019

An outside law firm hired by Putnam County has begun the process of collecting, correcting and exonerating more than $1 million in delinquent property taxes, county officials announced earlier this week.

Typically taxes are collected through the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department’s tax division, but the county hired Atkins & Ogle Law Offices to look into the debts.

“In the past, the sheriff’s department was responsible for all of it, but we hired an outside attorney to do it because the staff in the sheriff’s department didn’t have the time nor the expertise to collect some of it,” Putnam County Commission President Ron Foster said.

There is about $1.1 million in delinquent property taxes in the county, some from as far back as five years ago, that are being investigated.

The firm is looking at taxes from 2013, 2014 and 2015. The statute of limitations on unpaid taxes is five years, so the auditors are looking into the oldest cases first.

“The goal is to close the gap between when we bill and collect, and to make sure that they are legitimate tax bills that are being collected,” Foster said.

About $166,000 worth of the $1.1 million total has been corrected and exonerated, James Atkins, an attorney at Atkins & Ogle, told county commissioners during a recent meeting. Of the remaining total, there has been about $133,000 in delinquent taxes collected, or roughly 13 percent.

But the 13 percent return seemed a little low to Gary LeDonne, an executive in residence and master of accountancy coordinator at West Virginia University. He said if it includes interest and penalty charges, it wasn’t as high as he anticipated.

There can be no guarantees to the county commission on future work, Atkins told commissioners at this week’s meeting. When the sheriff’s department sends the next batch of cases, he said he wouldn’t be surprised to have similar percentages.

“Frankly, from a collector’s perspective, more recent attempts would definitely be more attractive and usually bring less surprise and complaints from taxpayers,” Atkins said.

Although the taxes may be older, the county still probably needs those funds, LeDonne said.

“Particularly with property taxes, sometimes taxpayers become delinquent for various reasons and the taxing jurisdiction is counting on those revenues to fund schools and other services,” LeDonne said.

He also said it’s not uncommon for smaller tax jurisdictions to hire outside help. The law firm has certain capabilities that the sheriff’s department’s tax division doesn’t, Chief Tax Deputy Rob Fewell said.

“You can send a letter, but that’s all you can do,” Fewell said. “But now that we’ve turned over to [Atkins & Ogle], the next pursuit is to go after [delinquent taxpayers] legally.”

Reach Rebecca Carballo at rebecca.carballo@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5189 or follow @Becca_Carballo on Twitter.

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