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Ventura County

County Searches Bankruptcy Cases for Unpaid Taxes

Government: The collector's office, which failed to file claims last year after it lost an analyst, says the problem is fixed.

January 04, 2002|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Ventura County tax collector's office has started the new year trying to fix one of last year's mistakes: its failure to file tax claims against most of the local individuals and businesses that sought bankruptcy in 2001.

Treasurer-Tax Collector Hal Pittman said Wednesday he realized only last month that the practice had fallen almost entirely through the cracks, although he knew his staff of 40 was short-handed and having trouble keeping up with claims filings.

Since his discovery, Pittman said, the problem has been corrected. A collections officer has been hired to file claims on new bankruptcies. That employee also will comb last year's filings for cases not yet settled.

Pittman estimated Wednesday that the county lost less than $100,000 as a result of last year's oversight, but said it would be impossible to pinpoint an amount.

Those seeking bankruptcy are supposed to disclose any taxes they owe the county when they list their creditors. As a result, Pittman said, the county generally receives payment even if it doesn't file a claim.

However, unsecured property, such as office equipment, is sometimes worth only pennies on the dollar in a bankruptcy, so there is no guarantee the county would have been able to collect all it was owed, Pittman said.

The recently hired collections officer will cost the county $25,000 to $35,000 a year in salary and benefits, Pittman said. Overall, the department took in $970 million last year.

The oversight occurred after the department lost an analyst in late 2000 and had trouble finding a permanent replacement, Pittman said.

Schillo Points Finger at Johnston

"It sounds real easy, 'Just fill it,' " he said. "We filled it and the one we filled it with left. Then the backup person came up with cancer. It's nice to second-guess people. But it's hard to do when you're in the trenches."

Supervisor Frank Schillo reacted angrily to that explanation.

"There isn't any excuse for not knowing whether you do or don't collect taxes," he said.

Rather than blaming Pittman, Schillo blamed County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston for not having a good enough handle on department staffing needs and communicating those needs to supervisors.

As officials brace for state fiscal woes to cut into the county's budget, Schillo said it's more important than ever for the county to collect all the money it is owed.

Johnston bristled at the criticism, saying he can't know what each of 7,000 county employees is or isn't doing, but that he is committed to providing enough staff to help departments run effectively.

Advocate Puts Fault With Supervisors

Taxpayer advocate Jere Robings, however, blamed the Board of Supervisors, saying it should have foreseen the effects of squeezing staffing levels in departments that generate revenue.

"The Board of Supervisors keeps telling the tax collector's office, 'You've got to cut staff,' and then they do, and something like this happens," Robings said.

Robings also questioned just how big a deal the oversight was.

"The question is whether they'll even lose the equivalent of the [$25,000 to $35,000] salary the job takes. It's more of an embarrassment than it is a financial catastrophe."

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