County will resume limited tax collections for unpaid bills

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Hoke County’s tax department will resume some limited tax collection activity on people who haven’t paid their tax bills, but won’t garnish wages or foreclose on occupied houses for now.

The Hoke County Board of Commissioners followed the recommendation of the county tax collector Monday and voted to allow the department to begin pursuing some limited tax collections for unpaid bills. However, the board chose not to resume wage garnishment, citing concerns over taking money out of people’s paychecks during a pandemic. The county is also not pursuing foreclosures on occupied houses.

The county halted all tax collection activity in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Compared to surrounding counties, Hoke was unusual in taking that step, county tax collector Daphne Dudley pointed out.

“We wanted to make sure all of our citizens were taken care of and not worry about taxes,” she said.

Hoke’s neighboring counties typically either continued full tax collection activities on back-owed taxes, or only slightly adjusted their policies during the pandemic, Dudley told commissioners.

Now, with a vaccine rollout underway and preparations for the next budget year getting started, it’s time to consider resuming some of the typical tax collection activities for back-owed taxes, she said. The tax collections will include actions such as sending out reminder letters, and later this year, and publishing a list of the names of people who have not paid taxes. The county is also continuing to foreclose on vacant lots of land that do not have anyone living on them.

Initially the proposal included resuming wage garnishment for some back-owed taxes, but after discussion, commissioners chose not to authorize that action.

Commission Vice Chairman Allen Thomas said he had concerns over wage garnishment, due to people struggling financially during the pandemic.

“I definitely support us moving forward and doing something…the thing that concerns me is garnishment of wages during a time when a lot of people are checking their accounts every day to see if the stimulus has hit yet,” he said. “I’m not convinced yet that we need to start the garnishment of wages, because of the pandemic and what people are going through.”

Commission Chairman Harry Southerland agreed with Thomas.

“People are looking for every dime they’re getting in their checks and their bank account. I would hate to do that in a time of need,” Southerland said.

Ultimately the board voted on an amended motion, with the possibility of potentially resuming wage garnishments after further consideration later in the year.

“I don’t think she’s (Dudley) reaching out too far and she’s still being considerate and having compassion for our citizens,” Commissioner Tony Hunt said in discussions of the matter.

Commissioners want to be supportive of residents, but the county does have to collect tax revenue to be able to operate and provide services, Commissioner Lonnie Baldwin said.

“It’s important that we continue to make every effort that we can to continue to reach out to our citizens, but on the same token our county must run and we must provide services,” he said.

Commissioner James Leach particularly asked Dudley to be mindful of senior citizens’ situations.

“Before you do that on our seniors please look at that three times, let that be a priority group if you would,” Leach said.

Hoke County taxpayers have still been paying their taxes at about the same rate that they have in past years, even without tax collections activity from the county department. The tax collection rate for the current year is similar to what it was the previous year.

“We’re not doing bad even though we stopped, people still did what they’re supposed to do,” Dudley said. “We’re not behind and we didn’t force anyone to pay their bills. I think the citizens did the work.”

The department is able to offer some flexibility to people who are struggling to pay their tax bills, if they contact the county about their situation.

“We just want to work with people. If they come to us we will work with them, we will do everything we can to make sure they can still function and pay for what they owe to Hoke County,” Dudley said.

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