A software conversion meant to streamline Manassas's tax system is once again causing problems, forcing unhappy city officials to postpone sending out personal property tax bills until November.

Frustrated by having received some software late, and by a computerized system that staff members say doubles their workload even when it operates properly, the City Council approved a tentative plan Wednesday to send out bills for personal property taxes and car decal fees two months later than usual.

This time line would mean payments would be due Dec. 5 -- when most people are thinking about Christmas shopping, not tax bills -- rather than Oct. 5. The delay would cost the city about $24,000 in lost interest.

Council members were angry over the latest in a series of troubles that have arisen over the software package purchased in 1997 from HTE Inc., a Florida-based provider, to consolidate Manassas's tax system, as well as make it year 2000 ready.

"We've hit a logjam," said council member J. Steven Randolph (I). "I'm concerned that there may be some liability on HTE's part that we need to explore."

Treasurer Robin R. Perkins (R) said part of the delay was because HTE did not send Manassas its new car decal software until mid-April, instead of by March as the city had expected. Car decal fees are being sent out with personal property taxes for the first time this year.

HTE has said that many snags resulted from Manassas being the first jurisdiction in Virginia to use its software for tax purposes and that the company must adjust the software for the particular tax laws of the state.

Still, council members wondered about the bottom line.

"Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for this problem?" asked council member Harry J. "Hal" Parrish II (R).

"It is the most cumbersome process I have ever seen in my life," said Deputy Revenue Commissioner Bobbi Hartman, who has been filling in since the death last month of her boss, Gary Plauger. Hartman said that even when the HTE system functions properly, it takes two or more people to do a job that one person used to be able to do.

Judith S. Hays (R), the lone council member who voted against the delay, said she could not stand the idea of bowing to HTE's software problems again -- and in the process, making taxpayers cough up money a few weeks before Christmas.

At the council's request, Finance Director Pat Weiler is writing a comprehensive review of the software conversion, while City Attorney Robert W. Bendall is reviewing Manassas's contract with HTE to see whether there are ways to recoup the money lost from this and previous delays.

"We just want to have a due date that the taxpayers can depend upon," Perkins said.