Cape Gazette
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Sussex unveils new-look tax bills

Better customer service is root of changes
By Ron MacArthur | Aug 21, 2013
Photo by: Ron MacArthur Tax bills will be mailed out of the county administrative building.

Sussex County tax bills are in the mail, and property owners will notice several changes thanks to an upgraded financial software system geared toward better customer service.

The county's billing office will issue more than 165,000 tax bills for fiscal year 2014 for a total estimated at $112.8 million. Bills will be issued throughout August by mail and electronically; payment is due by Monday, Sept. 30. Even before bills are mailed out, residents can go to the county's website and pay online.

This year’s tax bills feature a new, easier-to-read format that should help taxpayers better understand their bills and payment options, said County Finance Director Gina Jennings. She and members of county staff unveiled the new-look bills to council during an Aug. 6 meeting. Staff also showed council how a resident can find tax information and pay a bill online.

Council members had high praise for the new billing process; the only wrinkle was a credit card fee.

Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, took exception to the 2.44 percent pass-through fee when taxpayers use a credit card to pay their bills. “The way it's done is petty and irritating for our customers,” she said.

The 2.44 percent fee is paid to a third-party vendor that processes credit-card transactions for the county. On a $500 tax bill, the fee would be about $12.

County Administrator Todd Lawson said staff discussed the fee at length and negotiated the lowest rate possible. “We would have to absorb about $100,000 with 85 percent of that going to the state,” he said. That 85 percent is the state's percentage of each bill collected by the county for school taxes.

The county collects not only county property taxes, but also school taxes and transfers those payments to the state.

Deaver asked Lawson if the intention was to get residents to pay their tax bills online.

Lawson said that was the county's goal. “We've made an investment in technology, and that's the direction we want to go. We want people to be able to do business with the county like they do business everywhere else using a credit card,” he said.

“If our goal is to get people to pay online, we will not get there,” Deaver said.

“This is done for convenience,” said Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View. “I don't think we want the tax base subsidizing all the people who pay online.”

He said it's a common way of doing business, and all businesses either charge the fee up front or it's a hidden fee passed onto customers.

Changes put in place to ease payment process

For the first time, property owners can make credit card payments in person; that’s in addition to credit card payments that have been accepted online for years.

Where customers pay has changed this year, too. The county has consolidated its payment locations into one customer-service center, on the first floor of the county administration building on The Circle in Georgetown.

“Bill-paying, especially taxes, isn’t the kind of chore most people look forward to doing. Still, it has to be done, but it shouldn’t be painful,” Lawson said. “The county this year has taken a number of steps to try to make it as effortless and seamless an experience as possible, and we’re hopeful the public appreciates these changes.”

The county will mail 125,600 paper copies, while the remaining 41,400 bills will be sent electronically to mortgage lenders, requiring no paper or postage. Property owners not receiving a paper bill should check with their lender to ensure billing has occurred.

Patty Faucett, manager of the county’s billing division, said property owners can view their tax bills online in a new, updated information portal, and those who no longer receive a statement still can request a paper copy of their account’s status, if needed.

Annual tax bills include county property taxes, and county sewer and water, tax ditch and street lighting fees, where applicable. Additionally, tax bills include local school district taxes, which are collected by the county but turned over to the state. Delaware law requires Sussex County to bill property owners for school taxes on behalf of the eight public school districts. Roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of the typical residential tax bill is for county property taxes; about 85 percent is school tax.

A sample copy of this year’s bills is available on the county’s website at sussexcountyde.gov.

Several ways to pay bills

Sussex County accepts tax payments by cash, check, money order and debit or credit cards. Taxpayers have different options to make their payments.

These include:

Through a lender: Many taxpayers have their annual taxes paid out of escrow accounts by their mortgage lenders. If these taxpayers have any questions regarding the status of their escrow accounts, they should contact their lenders.

Online: Payment can be made on the internet, with the use of most major credit cards or by check. Go to sussexcountyde.gov/e-service/propertytaxes/ and select “make a payment” on the left side for more information.

By mail: Property owners can mail their tax payments using the return envelopes included in their statements. Bills should be addressed to the Sussex County Treasury Division, PO Box 429, Georgetown, DE 19947. All payments sent by mail must be postmarked by Monday, Sept. 30, to avoid the 1.5 percent penalty, per month, on unpaid balances.

In person or by telephone: The county’s payment center is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The office is located on the first floor of the county administration building, 2 The Circle, Georgetown. Tax payments also can be left in the office’s after-hours drop box located in the lobby. For more information, call 302-855-7760.

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