Tax levy ceiling cut to one cent after Clerk’s Office submits incorrect forms to State; Roper, Soper ask why they were not told sooner

LEE STUBBS Citizen Editor

Platte County officials had to scramble last week to confirm that the County Commission was legally authorized to issue tax statements after it was discovered that tax rate forms submitted to the State Auditor’s Office by the County Clerk’s Office were incorrect. After three days of meetings and recalculations initiated by Commissioners Beverlee Roper and Duane Soper that included Presiding Commissioner Jason Brown, County Clerk Joan Harms, County Auditor Kevin Robinson, County Collector Sheila Palmer and County attorney Bob Shaw, it was determined that the State had authorized the County’s 2013 one-cent general revenue tax levy and that Palmer could legally begin the tax statement printing and mailing process. Palmer said it would take about three weeks to prepare the statements, which must be mailed out 30 days prior to their due date of Dec. 31. However, because of clerical errors in filling out tax rate forms in 2011 and 2012, the County’s tax levy ceiling was reduced from 19.05 cents last year to just one cent this year, which matches the actual assessed levy. This means that the County does not have the state-authorized capability to raise its levy — for whatever reason — without legislative action in 2014. In a first meeting on the issue Oct. 23, Shaw said a mandated sales tax reduction is part of the equation and does not affect the levy ceiling. But voluntary tax reductions do affect the ceiling. A certification letter from the state from last year showed the County had voluntarily reduced its levy by .1805 cents. When a taxing entity takes that action in an even-numbered year, it automatically reduces the levy ceiling for the next year. “The tax rates have been correct the past two years, but some calculations to get there have been incorrect,” Shaw said. “This has impacted this year’s tax ceiling.” Shaw said that he, Harms and Robinson conducted a conference call with the State Auditor’s Office Oct. 8, during which the state said despite the tax rate filing errors, the state would certify the County’s one-cent levy. Shaw also said that the State said the County could submit revised forms for 2011 and 2012 after the first of the year. But, he said the Commission will have to issue another Court order to re-establish the tax ceiling. Soper said he was concerned that the drastically-lowered ceiling could harm the County’s credit worthiness. “We had such a good credit rating due to our ceiling, which is important when we issue bonds and so on — now we don’t have that,” he said. “And it’s going to take some work to get it back.” Initially, no one admitted fault for submitting the incorrect tax rate forms, though the forms were prepared in the County Clerk’s Office and bear signatures from both Brown and Harms. After looking through the forms and talking with County employees, The Citizen has determined errors were apparently committed by an employee in Harms’ office and went unnoticed by Harms or any other County official until the State Auditor’s Office notified Harms and Shaw in late September/early October that there were problems with the forms. Of particular note are the incorrect 2012 forms. Copies of two forms were obtained by The Citizen last week. Initially, the first form was signed by Brown and Harms Sept. 17, 2012 and submitted with no tax levy amount filled in. Nor were there any amounts listed for the state-mandated sales tax reduction and voluntary tax reduction. When asked about the incorrect 2012 tax rate forms, Brown admitted he had signed a form Sept. 17, 2012. He said he did not sign any subsequent 2012 tax rate forms after that. “When a fellow officeholder who is responsible for a document brings it to me for my signature and conveys to me that it is correct, I do so on that faith that they have done their job correctly,” Brown said. Harms said the state contacted her office and her office resubmitted a second form. But the second form was also incorrect and had a 10-cent levy filled in instead of the Commission-approved one-cent. Harms admitted to The Citizen on Monday that an employee in her office had filled out the second form with the incorrect levy amount on it. She also said Monday that her office did not fill out or send in a third one. However, when contacted Monday by The Citizen, the State Auditor’s Office sent The Citizen a copy of a third form sent in by the County Clerk’s Office by fax Oct. 25, 2012. This form included what appeared to be white-out over the previous incorrect figures, which were replaced with 0.1805 on the line for voluntary reduction and 0.0100 on the line for tax rate to be levied. Because there was not an amount filled in for sales tax reduction and the voluntary tax reduction was listed at .1805, that figure was subtracted from the 19.05-cent 2012 tax ceiling, resulting in the 2013 tax ceiling being set at one-cent, the same as the actual levy amount collected by the County. The Citizen was unsuccessful in talking with Harms Tuesday. But, the employee who filled out the second incorrect 2012 form admitted to The Citizen that she had whited out the figures on that form when returned by the State and had entered the .1805 voluntary reduction and .01-cent levy figures. She said that she did so of her own volition, thought what she was doing was right and thought it was her job to “fix it” and send it in. Brown said Tuesday that he found that hard to believe. “It’s extremely disappointing that an employee — of their own accord — would change an official state document like that without first checking with their boss,” he said. Inflaming the issue the past week was an apparent lack of communication between Brown and the other two commissioners. Soper and Roper both expressed concerned that they were not notified of the problem sooner by Brown, who was first notified of the problem by Shaw Oct. 8-9. Soper said that he did not find out about the issue until a few days before the Oct. 23 meeting and contacted Roper. “I’m very disappointed we were not told when Jason (Brown) had known about it for basically two weeks,” Soper said. “Once we did learn of the problem, we called a meeting and in 48 hours were able to get the right people together to work on this problem and get it resolved.” Brown said he had planned to talk to his fellow commissioners sooner, but “logistics and the order of things” did not coincide. “I talked with Bob (Shaw) after the conference call, then I talked to Joan (Harms) and Sheila (Palmer) and had a meeting scheduled for last Friday (Oct. 18) that I didn’t make, so didn’t get the chance to talk to them,” Brown said. “Plus, I felt it was my responsibility and not a County Commission duty to make sure it was right. The Commission had already done its job approving the levy.” Shaw declined to comment when he was asked why he did not inform either Roper or Soper about the issue. “This has been in play since Sept. 30 — I don’t know who made the decision not to include us, but someone did,” Roper said.