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23,500 get letters on delinquent taxes
CITY HALL

On Monday, the day Mayor Scott Avedisian released his proposed $288.8 million budget, 23,500 Warwick taxpayers started receiving letters stating that they owed back taxes and indicating that unless payments are made by May 31 they could expect additional interest costs.

And no sooner were the unsigned letters received did the phones at City Hall start ringing and people lined up outside the Tax Collector’s office to get an explanation. Many were carrying proof they had paid their taxes and were outraged by the inconvenience.

Yesterday, Avedisian had an explanation and an apology.

“This should have been worded differently,” the mayor said of the letter, which listed the amount due and an account number but not the date of the late or missing payment or the amount of the interest penalty.

Rather than assuming the taxpayer was at fault and charging an amount, Avedisian said the letter should have stated there appeared to be a discrepancy in the tax records and asked taxpayers to call and clarify the matter.

“The intent was good,” he said of the letter, “but the execution wasn’t so good.”

The timing was also poor. With several people in the collector’s office on vacation, including David Olsen, city treasurer who is also acting tax collector, the office is shorthanded to handle the cascade of calls. In addition, due to computer conversions scheduled to start today and continue through the weekend, personnel won’t be able to access tax records.

“I guess they’re all wrong,” City Council President Donna Travis said of the letters. She said she has received numerous calls. “People are mad. It’s crazy.”

She said it would have been “common sense” not to mail the letters, even if they were right, at just the point that the city computer system is going through transition.

Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci was one of the thousands to get a letter. He’s paid his taxes on time and immediately assumed there had been a mistake. He called the city and had the matter corrected.

So, what has happened? How could so many taxpayers be charged interest on late tax payments?

Avedisian explained that the interest charges go back as much as three years and pre-date the point last year when the city implemented a lock box system that implements the deposit of tax and utility payments within two days of receipt. Before the lock box, check payments were being deposited as much as a month after being received.

Those payments were recorded at the time the check was deposited, not when it was received. When the city scanned payments, computers picked up the date of deposit and computed the late charge, although the delay was the city’s fault.

In addition, the city has eliminated an undocumented grace period of allowing people to pay their quarterly without penalty until the end of the month in which they are due. No notice was given that the grace period was being eliminated.

Taxpayers who have faithfully paid their tax bills on time for the past five years are entitled to having the interest penalty waived. That’s been of consolation to some, but as council members are discovering, most taxpayers aren’t aware of the provision.

“I didn’t get this many calls over the airport,” Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson said yesterday.

“Because of the past practice, taxpayers believe there is a grace period – how do you change a practice in the middle of a billing cycle?”

Gallucci further noted senior and veterans’ exemptions, which the city may not have applied, could result in unfair interest penalties. In some cases, taxpayers have waited for the city to apply the exemption only to be charged a late fee once it is in place. In one case where it was concluded payment had been lost, the taxpayer was penalized when he issued a new check.

When Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur started receiving calls, he visited the tax collector’s office and talked with people lined up with the letters.

“There were a lot of angry people,” he said.

Ladouceur said he personally assisted an elderly couple that had a letter to pay $4,800. He informed them of the penalty waiver and accompanied them to the counter.

“We need to figure out a better way to do business. I need some answers on this thing,” he said.

Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon also said he got an earful.

“That’s an error on the city side,” he said of the letters.

“What was the cost of sending out improper letters?” he asked. “That’s not good management.”

Avedisian said personnel in the assessor’s office have been temporarily assigned to the tax collector’s office to cope with the influx of calls and counter visitors. He said a number of taxpayers acknowledged they had missed payments or were late with payments. And he urged those questioning the letter to call.


Comments
8 comments on this item

What has taken place at Warwick City Hall the last several years is embarrassing. Notices going out to people who have paid taxes, people being told they owe back taxes when they don't. Scottie A can spin this "mistake" all he wants, there's no one minding the store at city hall. Between the Warwick Sewer Authority, the school department, the tax collectors office what are our elected officials doing? Why is nobody held accountable for their FAILURES??? The mayor has an excuse for every mistake his office makes and nobody ever calls him on it. He certainly won't be held accountable by the Beacon, or John Howell who continue to pump his tires every chance they get. How much will this "mistake" cost tax-payers? Something tells me we will never hear that number. Instead we will get fluff pieces on the airport project running "under-budget", or how taxes have to go up to support existing city services. Another year of the mayor raising taxes, more confusion at the sewer authority, no one having any idea who has and hasn't paid taxes in this city. No plan for the schools. If we as a city are screwing up something as basic as revenue collections, what else are we not being told? What is the real unfunded pension liability in this city? Instead we're sold a bill of goods from the Beacon and Scottie A about what strong financial shape we're in. This mayor is incapable of making tough decisions and standing behind them. One thing i know for sure...no matter what the mayor does he will have the undying support of John Howell and the Beacon.

@Scal1024:

Warwick Total Debt

General Obligation Bonds $50,992,040

Sewer SRF Loans Payable $92,046,340

Sewer Bonds Payable $16,125,013

Water Bonds Payable $1,352,947

City pension unfunded liability $328,281,603

Non-teacher pension unfunded liability $6,444,569

OPEB city unfunded liability $246,036,471

OPEB school unfunded liability $39,359,679

Warwick Grand Total Debt $780,638,662

Warwick Population (2012 Census Data) 81,873

Per capita debt $9,534

Copy this link into your browser and turn to page 7 for full details on Warwick Debt:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6P1sIPd4PTdNldpbzZ6MzlRZ1U/edit?usp=sharing

Thanks for that! People have to start realizing they won't get the whole truth (if any) from this paper. I don't always agree with you on every issue Bob, however, i think it's time somebody steps up to run against this mayor. He hasn't faced a real challenge since he's been in office, and has never had to stand behind his policies. If someone were to go head to head with him on the numbers, and make him defend the state of this city than i think residents of Warwick will have a real choice to make. This city is greatly lacking in leadership and i think people are hungry for solutions. Whether it be on the school side, the city side, the WSA, tax collectors what a mess! I hope you continue to take this debate to the public as much as you can ( i know it's hard when the local paper ignores it).

I am really confused about what will happen next. We stupidly paid our "overdue" tax and then discovered the problem was with the city and not us. Remember the Beacon story showing the President of the City Council opening up the tax payment envelopes weeks after they were mailed to city hall? I guess our payment was in that batch.

The mayor needs to get ahead of this issue and explain what is to happen now. Am I going to get some money back?

Political careers often end over really stupid things.

I was given the explanation that because the payments now go to Boston, MA they must be postmarked by the 15th of the month that the quarterly payment is due. They used to give you a grace period and wouldn't charge interest if the payment was postmarked on or by the last day of the month in which it was due. I've lived in Warwick for 29 years and have never been charged interest on a payment. So, I figured the person I talked to knew what they were talking about. Needless to say I sent out the payments already. Now what? Hold my breath I guess.

So how do they reimburse the people who did pay on time last year but were penalized because the city did not process the payments for weeks and weeks?

I'm shocked, shocked that another government entity has screwed this up to such a degree. Thank God for the steady and reliable leadership of the Warwick public schools. THE two primary roles of municipal government are to take in taxes efficiently, and spend that money with great prudence. Hmmm.

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