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Council member pays tax penalties after inquiry
GBI looking at how city handles bills
Will Britt WEB
Will Britt

        Statesboro City Councilman Will Britt did not pay $2,074 he identified as penalties for late city property taxes for 2010 and 2011 — until last week, while the GBI is investigating possible mishandling of funds at City Hall.
        Britt included a letter with the two tax penalty payment checks, one for $1,119.26; the other for $955.17, that he delivered Tuesday to interim City Manager Robert Cheshire.
        “Here are the penalties for paying 2010 and 2011 property taxes after the date due. …” Britt began the letter.
        “It has been brought to my attention through the recent investigation that no employee has the authority to waive penalties for these type payments,” he wrote.
        This refers to the question of whether any city employee can waive tax penalties or late fees.

Open records request
        The Statesboro Herald made an Open Records Act request for Britt’s tax records two weeks ago. Approached for an interview after Tuesday morning’s City Council meeting, Britt said that he had a letter and two checks, which he originally said he would present to City Clerk Sue Starling.
        Among Britt’s tax records were two tally sheets showing the totals $1,119.26 and $955.17. Each appears with or near the handwritten name of former City Manager Frank Parker.
        The sheet with the $955.17 total carries the signature “F. Parker” and the handwritten date “5-9-12.” The amounts adding up to the total are also shown on 14 separate tax transaction statements for the Oct. 14, 2010 billing for properties owned variously by Britt, his mother, his brother and by Britt along with two different partners. The statements are dated April 18, 2012 but apply to taxes with an October 14, 2010 billing date and Jan. 15, 2011 due date.
        Similarly, the amounts on the tally sheet with the $1,119.26 total all appear in the “adjustments and charges” column of 20 transaction statements with the tax billing date Sept. 13, 2011 and due date Dec. 20, 2011. The statement date was Feb. 15, 2013.
        The tally sheet is hand-labeled “Penalties for 2011” and does not carry a signature. But the Feb. 15, 2013 statement showing the first amount tallied has “OK” handwritten over the signature “Frank Parker.”
        One of the smaller numbers added up in the $955.17 tally does match the number in an “adjustments) and charges” column but is shown as the transaction total on a statement.

Parker’s signature
        Asked the meaning of the tally sheets with Parker's signature, Cheshire said, “It means that something was waived, but I’m not clear whether it would be penalties and interest or whether it would be a part of the principal.”
        Responding to the Herald’s calls to Parker, his attorney, Dan Snipes, was told that the main question was whether Parker wrote off late fees or approved someone else’s doing so.
        “My understanding is that the city charter does not allow the city manager to have that authority,” Snipes said. “That’s just not something that falls within his purview. Beyond that, this is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation, which Mr. Parker is cooperating with, and beyond that, it would just be inappropriate for us to comment at any level.”

Britt’s explanation
        In the interview Tuesday, Britt made more mention of City Clerk Sue Starling than of Parker. Britt’s explanation was that he went to Starling asking whether he could set up a payment plan and that she said he could.
        In earlier years, Britt said, when he owed money, he would often go to the businesses or organizations he owed and ask if they could “freeze everything” and let him pay a certain amount each month.
         “So what happened was, I went to Ms. Sue, and said, ‘Hey, Ms. Sue, I owe like, let’s say $6,000 in taxes,’ and I said, ‘Ms. Sue can I pay you $700 a month, every month and do this,’ and she’s like, ‘Yes,’” Britt said.
        The amounts he mentioned were hypothetical.
        Asked whether he asked for the late fees to be waived, Britt said, “I think the way I did it was, ‘Can we freeze everything and then I pay the payments?’”
        When he asked Starling if the city set up payment plans, Britt said, she told him it did.
        “I said, ‘Well then, that’s what I’m going to do.’ I certainly never asked for anything to be done that we’ve never done before or anything like that,” Britt said Tuesday.
        Informed of Britt’s explanation involving the payment plan, Starling emailed one sentence:
        "I have no comment on Councilman Britt's characterization of the events in question.”
        But when he asked again about a payment plan two or three years ago, the answer had changed, Britt said. That was after Alvin Leaphart was hired as city attorney.
        At that point, someone, Britt thinks it was Starling, told him, “Will, we can’t do that. Alvin said we can’t do that,” Britt said.
        More recently, Leaphart told him that the city cannot waive tax penalties and has less leeway with taxes than utility fees, Britt said.
        He only heard there was a problem, he said, this year when Mayor Jan Moore told him that an inquiry by the GBI was underway into four items at the city and that one of them had to do with his property taxes.
        Asked if he had gone to Parker about his 2010 and 2011 taxes, Britt said, “I don’t remember going to Frank to talk to him about it. I don’t think I went to Frank. If I went to Frank, it was like, with Ms. Sue” to set up a payment plan.
        “I hope that I didn’t abuse a friendship,” Britt said. “I don’t think there was anything abusive of power, at all.”
        He said he hopes that in any conversation he had with Starling, Parker, Leaphart or anyone else with the city, they understood that he was asking what the city did as a regular practice.

Mayor’s statement
        Moore also provided a statement, beginning:
        “It is a matter of public record that penalties and interest resulting from nonpayment of property taxes in 2010 and 2011 were levied on a number of properties listed as being owned in the city of Statesboro by Councilman Will Britt, members of his family, and property he owned jointly with other people.  It is also a matter of public record that the amount of those penalties/interest incurred was deleted from those same accounts during 2012 and 2013 without being paid.”
         City Public Safety Director Wendell Turner informed Moore several weeks ago that an investigation into the matter is being conducted by an outside law enforcement agency, she said in her statement.
         Moore’s full statement, and Britt’s letter in which he also refers to a payment plan, will be posted with the digital version of this story at www.statesboroherald.com.

GBI’s investigation
         The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has begun an investigation into “improprieties or mismanagement of funds” in the city government, said GBI Special Agent in Charge Cathy Sapp, who heads the bureau’s Statesboro office. She said Turner asked the GBI to do this.
        “What I can tell you is that we’re looking at different individuals and we’re looking at, I’m going to call it, potential improprieties because right now we’re not far enough into the investigation to label it, completely, criminal yet,” Sapp said.
         The investigation does not involve an audit, which would require a special unit of the GBI.
         Meanwhile, city officials are trying to figure out what to do with the $2,074.43 in payment for charges no longer carried on anyone’s balance. Cheshire met with Starling, Leaphart and City Finance Director Cindy West on this question, and said that an auditor will be asked to advise them.
        “I have consulted with our staff and we will be consulting with our auditors to see how we will proceed with handling these payments," Cheshire said.

Plans and waivers?
        People sometimes make partial payments on taxes, but Cheshire said he wouldn’t refer to this as a payment plan.
        “When you get your bill, you can come in and pay toward that bill, but there is a process in place that if you don’t pay by certain times there will be penalties which accrue as well as interest,” he said.
         Interest of 1 percent per month begins accruing after the tax due date. Then a one-time penalty is charged on any unpaid tax after 90 days.
         Bulloch County Tax Commissioner James Deal said he has authority, granted him years ago, to waive the penalty on county property taxes.
        “If there’s a death in the family and the money’s tied up and they can’t get the will probated to get money free to pay a bill or something like that, then I would consider waiving the penalty only on the tax bill, but not interest,” Deal said.
         But he said he has never waived a penalty for a county commissioner or other elected official.
        “No, because they’re supposed to keep their taxes current, you know, seriously,” Deal said.

Will Britt's letter to Robert Cheshire
         Here, reformatted and with his signature and address removed, is Councilman Will Britt's May 5 letter, delivered to interim City Manager Robert Cheshire.
To: City of Statesboro
From: Will Britt
Regarding: 2010 & 2011 Property Taxes

Robert,
        Here are the penalties for paying 2010 and 2011 property taxes after the date due. I paid taxes and managed properties at that time for about 4 different owners. It has been brought to my attention through the recent investigation that no employee has the authority to waive penalties for these type of payments. Unlike water bills, gas bills or other enterprise fund payments Property Tax has clear language laying out the method of collecting any payments past due. Five years ago, Five months ago and even five weeks ago I did not know this was the law. So please accept these two payments. I realize the amounts are probably charged off already but I am sure someone in finance can find somewhere to allocate the money. Might I suggest a permanent sign for Joe Brannen Hall? Please accept my payment and my apologies for asking for a payment plan when that option was not proper and for not knowing the rules myself.
Will Britt

Mayor Jan Moore's statement
        Mayor Jan Moore's statement May 7 regarding Councilman Will Britt's tax charges and an investigation:
        It is a matter of public record that penalties and interest resulting from nonpayment of property taxes in 2010 and 2011 were levied on a number of properties listed as being owned in the city of Statesboro by Councilman Will Britt, members of his family, and property he owned jointly with other people. It is also a matter of public record that the amount of those penalties/interest incurred was deleted from those same accounts during 2012 and 2013 without being paid. It appears that the amount removed totaled $2074.43. I was informed several weeks ago by our Director of Public Safety that an investigation into this matter is ongoing and being conducted by an outside law enforcement agency. I have no further comment.