Delinquent Taxpayers

By Zaneta Lowe  - bio | e-mail

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - There's a bill awaiting Georgia Governer Sonny Perdue's signature that would penalize lawmakers who are delinquent in paying their taxes.

This after the Department of Revenue handed over a list of 22 legislators, who in some cases, are as much as seven years behind.

Newsleader 9 launched its own month long investigation into this very issue to find out who exactly hasn't been paying their taxes, and it's not just politicians!

"In reality, it's not an estimate, it's at least $1.4 billion."

That's how much money Georgia Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham says is missing in delinquent tax money.

Graham says over the past few years, collections had actually gotten better and they'd reduced the total to about $800, $900 million.

"As the economy declined, we've seen that number grow back up into the $1.4 billion range, $200 million of which has become past due in the last six to eight months," says Graham.

In an aggressive effort to collect some of those funds, Georgia is one of a handful of states that publishes a list of delinquent taxpayers online.

It's for businesses and individuals that have reached the lien or garnishment stage.

The program started in 2004.

The state will also refuse to renew auto dealer and liquor licenses for businesses who don't pay up.

"When they refuse to show up for appointments, or to meet the terms of negotiation, then sometimes they need an extra push and some of these tools we use are the extra push," says Graham.

Alabama officials are also taking a unique approach to collect tax money owed to the state.

It's not nearly as much.

"I honestly believe we're talking about several hundreds of millions of dollars for the state of Alabama," says Alabama Revenue Commissioner Tim Russell.

But, Russell admits they need it.

That's why they've launched Operation Clean Slate, an amnesty program that allows taxpayers who are behind to avoid penalties if they pay.

"It's an effort to try to give citizens and corporate activities, and business activities in Alabama a chance to come clean," explains Russell.

The program ends May 15th, and it's not for folks who are already in the lien stage, but Russell says what comes after that will be even more effective.

The state has invested millions of dollars into a new computer system that will make it easier to track down tax dodgers.

"With our technology and our abilities, we are going to be much more effective in searching that down in the future and the penalties are going to be quite severe," adds Russell.

This issue of delinquent tax filers has become even more important as each state looks for ways to fund dwindling budgets.

Both commissioners say most of the missing money comes from what's not turned over in sales and income tax.

"Well, it's possible some businesses are not forwarding those trust fund accounts to the state of Alabama," says Russell.

"From the second that a retailer or a company collects on behalf of its employers, it's state property, so if they turn around and use it to their own benefit or their own consumption, you know technically, they've broken the law," explains Graham.

Despite the dire need for money, Graham says the economy hasn't changed his department's approach.

"Everybody wants the net result, they want the collection, so they can fund all the programs and priorities that the governor, legislature wants to fund, but when it comes to that constituent or their hometown business, it's all about what good people they are.  Well, they're not always good people, though the people in the community think they're good people, and we generally know the rest of the story," Graham says.

The ConsumerWatch team wanted to know the rest of the story.

With a bit more digging, we discover in Muscogee County alone, there's more than $14 million missing in delinquent tax money.

Names and places you know and go each day, from banks to barbeque joints.

We first looked at businesses that were listed on the DOR's website as owing more than $100,000 dollars.  Most of them were already shut down.

So we checked out businesses who were listed as owing more than $50,000.

We pulled up a lien for a Regions Bank listing, it's for more than $80,000.  The location has an address of Hamilton Road, but that doesn't exist. So we contacted a spokesperson, the company provided this statement.

"Regions is committed to fulfilling all of its tax obligations in a timely manner, and we were not aware of this 10 year old claim. We have contacted the Georgia Department of Revenue, and we look forward to resolving the matter in the near future."

At many of the locations, an owner wasn't present to explain why the company's name showed up on the Department of Revenue's list.

At two of the businesses we went to, people who identified themselves as the owners, said they were paying the state back.  But that's what won't show up on public record.

Department of Revenue officials tell us once a lien is recorded, the amount listed online or with county records won't change, nor will they remove a name, until the lien is paid in full.

Plus, there are other discrepancies we discovered.  Like a lien listed on IHOP on Airport Thruway.

We visited the store, but after speaking with the company's attorney, he says the amount, which doesn't belong to the current owner, although we found it's listed that way, has been in dispute with the Department of Revenue for more than 10 years, and they haven't been able to reach a resolution.

The Department of Revenue wouldn't comment on that particular case.

Plus, there are other situations where a business may have changed ownership, but it's unclear who the lien belongs to.

According to the Department of Revenue, it should be handled before the sale, but it seems that's not always the case.

No matter who it is, though, every dollar counts.

"It's as simple as you know we're questioning why did I get a tax notice to pay $20 on this issue, wasn't that a waste of your time? Well, if you take four and a half million taxpayers times $20, pretty soon, you're de-funding a lot of state departments," says Graham.

As for those 22 politicians who are delinquent, the Department of Revenue is keeping that private.

The legislation that was passed, though, requires the names to be turned over to the ethics committee in the house and senate for legislators who, once notified, don't comply in a timely manner.

We spoke with most of our of our local legislators and asked if they were current on state, federal and property taxes and the ones we spoke with all said yes.

We didn't find any liens on public record to the contrary.