By DAMIAN MANN
A major snafu at the Jackson County Assessor’s Office resulted in 19,552 incorrect property tax statements being sent out this year and millions of dollars wrongly credited or shortchanged to schools, cities and other local governments.
“I’m very apologetic, and I will do everything in my power not to let this happen again,” said Assessor Josh Gibson.
Gibson said his office will mail letters to 19,173 property owners who didn’t pay their full share of property taxes but will be required to pay on average $28.32 in next year’s statement. The total amount not billed because of the assessor error was $543,000.
Another 379 taxpayers should have had a slightly lower tax amount, averaging $17.63 each. The total overpayments amounted to $6,680, and refunds to those taxpayers will be mailed in January.
The same error resulted in 18 taxing agencies receiving incorrect information about the amount they would receive. Urban renewal agencies and other districts received credit for $2 million less than they were owed, while school districts, the city of Medford and other agencies were told they would get a total of $1.7 million more than they should have received.
The Medford Urban Renewal Agency had the largest miscalculation, getting a notice that it would receive only $520,000 when it was due $2.4 million.
The city of Medford’s statement showed it would receive almost $1 million more than it was due. The Medford school system also had a statement showing it would receive more than $400,000 in property taxes than it was owed.
Gibson said the taxing agencies have been notified of the problems. Since the property taxes are distributed throughout the year, Gibson said, the amount of distributions will be changed to compensate for the errors.
Gibson said he hasn’t been able to definitively identify the reason for the errors but thinks it might have been related to the software system that tracks property taxes.
“In our software program, there is a button that shouldn’t be touched,” Gibson said. Possibly, he said, the button was inadvertently activated, leading to the cascade of problems.
“The problem is mine and falls on my shoulders,” Gibson said.
Gibson said the software system doesn’t have a way of tracking whether the button was actually pushed.
The assessor is shifting to a new software system that he hopes will be easier to use and will help in tracking and catching errors.
“We’re hoping the grass is greener on the other side,” he said.
After the error was discovered, Gibson said, his staff has carefully reviewed how much is owed taxing agencies.
“We’ve double- and triple-checked our numbers,” he said.
In the letter that will be received over the next week, the assessor will notify property owners that there will be an additional fee on next year’s property tax statement that will be labeled “error.”
The problem was discovered by Portland-based Seattle-Northwest Securities while it was reviewing the tax implications of the failed Medford pool levy more than a month ago.
“We were updating the projections for what the tax rate was going to be on the bonds,” said Mary Macpherson, vice president of public finance for the company, which underwrites municipal bonds.
She said her firm noticed unusual values for the Medford Urban Renewal Agency in the assessor’s numbers.
Macpherson said the analysis of the assessor’s numbers was further complicated because some agencies had seen a decline in the amount of taxes received because of reduced property values.
Macpherson said her company dropped any further inquiries into the issue after the pool levy failed.
She said her company has discovered discrepancies in the past in its reviews of bond measures for other areas of the state.
“It’s not unusual,” Macpherson said.
About three years ago, a school bond measure was applied to the wrong set of taxpayers in Multnomah, Washington and Columbia counties, resulting in reimbursements, she said.
Since Seattle-Northwest discovered the error, the assessor hasn’t received any calls from specific agencies, but some local businesses have noticed the discrepancies.
“The title companies noticed the problem a couple of days ago,” Gibson said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.