GEORGETOWN — With a continued aggressive approach, Sussex County has made noticeable strides in delinquent tax collections over the past decade.
And the county’s finance director, Gina Jennings, has the numbers to prove it.
“You can see now, going into 2021, where we are. In 2010, when (enforcement) started, we had 10,700 delinquent accounts. Now, we have 6,623,” she said during a presentation at Tuesday’s County Council meeting.
Overall, as of Tuesday, property tax/sewer bill delinquency in Sussex stood at approximately $16.8 million, counting both the base amounts and interest, according to Katrina Mears, the county’s billing services/collections manager.
Spanning 2016-20, the county’s five-year property tax-collection rate was 99.14%, with a high mark of 99.56% in tax year 2016 and a low of 98.34% in 2020.
This week’s presentation followed recent public comment about the county’s delinquent-tax status.
“I think our employees are doing a very good job in trying to get this closed down,” said County Council President Michael Vincent.
In July 2010, Sussex County began publicly listing on its website the top 100 tax delinquencies, as well as information about an amnesty program. That list has since expanded to publicize the top 1,000 delinquencies — more than $9 million in unpaid taxes — was updated May 28.
Other incentives have been implemented since, serving as tools for the collections staff, which consists of a manager and three full-time employees.
Back in 2009, there was no official collections staff, only the Treasury Division and the Utility Billing Department. “They were responsible for any collections on top of billing. … They did both,” said Ms. Jennings.
“The number of accounts has gone down 38% since we’ve hired a collections manager and also created a collections staff,” added the finance director, who started her job eight years ago. “When I took over in 2013, there was (only) Katrina Mears.”
Since that time, those departments have been revamped. “Now, billing is one thing; collections another. That freed up three additional staff just to focus on collections. So no additional cost to the county, but it was just becoming more efficient,” Ms. Jennings said.
Tools to address and collect delinquent taxes include warning letters and postcards, phone calls, constable and sheriff visits, monition sales postings, wage attachments, property liens and notifying mortgage services of delinquencies.
Additionally, in October 2007, County Council adopted a “clean-hands” ordinance, which requires residents and property owners applying for permits or other services to be current on their financial obligations to the county.
Ms. Mears said she was notified just Monday of a recent success.
“We collected a $35,000 bill from someone,” she said. “It was actually a builder that got caught up in the clean-hands ordinance. They had some past-due sewer bills for one of their developments … and wanted to get permits. So we stopped them and said, ‘Hey, we’ll issue the permits. Got to pay your bill first.’”
The county also has a more defined payment plan.
“Back in 2009, it was like, if you could pay $10, that’s great,” Ms. Jennings said. “Now, we want to make sure you can get to the payment and get done. We have a defined plan now. Within 36 months, you have to pay.”
Ms. Mears continued, “Right now, about $2.4 million of past-due property taxes are in payment plans. We bill in August, and then, they get three delinquent notices.”
In September 2020, in partnership with the Sussex County Sheriff’s Office, the county began posting on-site demands for final payment and notices that the parcel was being referred for sale. This process has resulted in 51 of the 122 parcels paying up.
Left unpaid, eligible properties are sold at sheriff’s sales. Currently, Sussex has about $1.9 million in that process.
“In 2010, we only had $227,000. We’re now almost $2 million going through the sheriff sale process,” Ms. Jennings said.
Another method the county has entered into is a tax-intercept program with the state, “so that if somebody has a rebate coming from their taxes, we’re able to intercept that rebate,” said Ms. Jennings. “We do wage attachments. We also are now sending reports to mortgage services.”
Like Kent and New Castle counties, Sussex County is the collection agency for property taxes. Tax bills include two portions — for the state and for the county. In Sussex, the breakdown between the state and the county portion of the tax is 90% state/school taxes and 10% county taxes, Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson said.
Ms. Jennings said, “We have been very successful in our collections process. We continue to look at ways that we can better our process. But you can see that the numbers speak for themselves, that we are bringing those numbers down.”
Councilman Vincent said he was pleased.
“I think the four people that we have are doing an excellent job in trying to collect these things. They work very hard at it.”