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Our Views: A taxing question
Discrepancy over tax payment dates raises concerns over county records
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

When The Times launched an effort to find how timely political candidates were in paying their taxes, little did we know the result would be the revelation that you really can’t trust those online tax records posted by the Hall County tax commissioner’s office.

In a story last week, we reported that five candidates seeking election this year had been late in paying their annual tax obligation, some by a few days, some by months.

In compiling the data, we started with the online database maintained by the county’s tax commissioner office, then confirmed with Tax Commissioner Keith Echols that we were reporting the numbers accurately and interpreting things correctly.

And he said we were.

But once the story broke and a couple of the candidates produced documentation to prove they had in fact met the required deadlines, Echols backtracked and said the online database really isn’t accurate after all as a means of determining when people pay their taxes.

According to Echols, while the database includes information on when taxes are paid, those dates really don’t mean anything after all. The data actually reflects when payments are posted, which apparently can be days or weeks after they actually are made.

Which is troubling for many reasons.

The first is the tax commissioner’s seemingly cavalier attitude toward posting inaccurate data online about county taxpayers. Echols admits to having known that the online information was incorrect, but has failed to do anything to fix it.

In the old days — think maybe a decade or two ago — if someone were interested in knowing whether his neighbor paid his taxes, he would make a visit to the tax commissioner’s office and have an employee help him find the information in hard copy form in a file somewhere. The process was slow and tedious and the information wasn’t made readily available to lots of people.

Modern technology has changed all that. Now a database of information used by the tax office is posted for the world to see, and with just a few keystrokes, anyone can. Which is great — if the information posted there is accurate. But in this case it isn’t.

These online records aren’t created just so they can be posted to the Web. They reflect information in the main electronic database for the office, which must be wrong as well.

Of course knowing that something as simple as the date on which people paid their taxes isn’t properly recorded in the master database of the tax commissioner’s office leads to the question of what else may be wrong in county records. Having such a blunder within one county office affects the credibility of them all.

And then there is that little niggling issue of late penalties. Property owners who pay their taxes late are supposed to be assessed a penalty for doing so. But if the records aren’t accurately maintained, who’s to say the penalties are properly enforced?

The other troublesome issue is the idea that county tax payments may sit around for days without being properly entered and recorded. According to Echols, when the tax deadline nears, payments come pouring in, and it may be days before they are properly recorded and deposited.

Somehow the idea of mail bins full of checks sitting around county tax offices isn’t very reassuring.

It’s entirely possible that Echols did not realize until last week that the data being provided for public consumption was inaccurate, though it stretches the imagination to believe that among those responsible for making the information public there wasn’t someone who knew the payment dates as reported weren’t always correct.

Those who spend any time online know that much of what you find in the depths of the Internet can’t be trusted. But if anything should be trustworthy, it’s public documents posted by government agencies.

When that isn’t the case, it reflects poorly on all of those in government service, and adds to the public’s mistrust of government in general.

We can only hope that the tax commissioner will quickly remedy the problem so that the digital data maintained by his office is correct, and that all data presented to the public for its use and information is accurate. Anything else makes of mockery of something that should be important.