Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Butler seeks probe of forgiven tax penalties

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — The Butler County commissioners asked the Ohio Auditor's Office Monday to investigate the county's procedures for canceling real estate tax penalties and interest.

        The commissioners fear that the county treasurer's and auditor's offices have been unknowingly violating state law for 18 years by failing to submit remittances to the state tax commission.

        “It appears thousands of taxpayers have been affected by this,” Commissioner Mike Fox said.

        County Treasurer Mary Law's office has been ordering remittances after consulting with County Auditor Kay Rogers' office. But a 1982 state law says only the state tax commission can ap prove remittances.

        Butler County Prosecutor John Holcomb raised the issue two weeks ago by filing a lawsuit that accused Ms. Rogers of improperly forgiving almost $10,000 in real estate penalties and interest for developer Irv Tessler.

        Last week, Mr. Tessler paid the penalties and interest, and Mr. Holcomb withdrew the lawsuit. But that case led county officials to discover that the county treasurer has approved remittances in thousands of cases instead of sending them to the state tax commission.

        Some of these cases occurred during the terms of previous county treasurers and auditors, Mr. Fox said.

        Mr. Holcomb has called

        the situation “scandalous” and suggested the commissioners ask for a state audit.

        Mr. Fox said it appears no one in the auditor's or treasurer's offices intended to do anything wrong.

        “There was nothing nefarious here,” he said. “This is the way it had always been done. It was done in good faith.”

        Mr. Fox blamed a breakdown in the system of checks and balances designed to prevent such prob lems.

        The Ohio Auditor's Office and Mr. Holcomb, who has been prosecutor for 28 years, should have been more vigilant over the years, he said.

        “I am amazed that the law was changed 18 years ago,” Mr. Fox said, “and not once did we have any indication from the state auditor's office that we were doing anything improper.”

        Mr. Holcomb should have informed county officials of the law change as soon as it occurred, he said.

        Mr. Holcomb called that contention “ridiculous.”

        The commissioners will ask Mrs. Law, Ms. Rogers and Mr. Holcomb to meet with them next week to discuss the situation.

        Mrs. Law said she already had asked the state auditor's office to review the county's procedure for forgiving tax penalties and interest.

        “I think we need to have everything resolved,” she said. “My office is open to any audit by any agency.”

        Mr. Holcomb, the lone Demo cratic countywide office-holder, said he will demand a list of everyone who improperly received a remittance in real estate tax penalties and will compare it with a list of donors to the Butler County political parties.

        “I'll see if maybe some of those people have plenty of money to lavish on officeholders and the parties, but don't have enough to pay their taxes,” Mr. Holcomb said.


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