Personal property tax bills with late penalty fees attached arrived in the mailboxes of more than 11,000 Arlington residents last week and the phones at the ordinarily quiet county government offices have yet to stop ringing.
Compounding citizens' anger over the late charges is the fact that most claim they never received notices they were to be billed in the first place.
The bills, which should have been paid by Sept. 15, hit the taxpayers with a $10 fee for filing their personal property tax declaration late and a late payment fee that totals 10 percent of the bill.
The brunt of taxpayers' wrath seems to have been visited equally on the commissioner of revenues's office, where the bills were prepared, and Arlington Treasurer Benny L. Fletcher, whose task it was to send the bills out.
"This happens every year and my name's on them," sighed Fletcher one recent afternoon as the calls continued to pour in. "I think I have a gray hair for everyone of those bills."
Fletcher included a letter with every late bill, explaining that he was being forced by state law to impose the 10 percent late penalty and the accompanying interest.
Fletcher's letter also contained the following disclaimer: The reasons your tax assessment was not received by me prior to Sept. 15 should be known to the commissioner," and went on to urge taxpayers to direct complaints about their bills to the commissioner's office.
The commissioner's office was equally defensive concerning its role in the late billings, which affected approximately one in every eight personal property taxpayers.
"Most of these people either didn't return their (property tax declaration) card or they are new to the county," said deputy commissioner of revenue Pat Petros. "We feel that these people deserve last priority."
The declaration forms, she said, are mailed in early to mid-March and are due April 15. Bills are then prepared and mailed to taxpayers in early August, giving them six weeks to pay.
Petros conceded, however, that there is no mechanism for letting new residents know what their tax responsibility is.
"You are legally responsible for knowing or for finding out about taxes," Petros pointed out. "We rely pretty heavily on the taxpayers to be resourceful."
Some residents said they were certain they had never received the declaration form. "If I had received it, I would have returned it promptly," said one woman, who, nonetheless, paid the tax and all the penalty fees.
The revenue department said it hoped the problem would be alleviated in the next tax year by a new distribution system for the declaration forms. The forms will be handed out to those who come down to the courthouse in April to buy registration stickers for their cars -- the item on which most people are paying personal property tax.
"We'll try to be sure that everyone in those lines gets a card," Petros said. "And that one week sure accounts for a lot of the problem," she added ruefully.