Software glitches cause headaches for tax collectors

Problems delay mailings of Howard, Wicomico bills

`It's been very painful'

July 08, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With July a week old, thousands of homeowners in several Maryland counties were beginning to think they'd been blissfully forgotten by their local tax collector - but they were wrong.

Property tax bills in Howard and Wicomico counties that usually go out June 30 are just starting to arrive in mailboxes because of software problems.

Officials in Cecil, Frederick, Calvert and Washington counties mailed bills on time but reported other problems with Munis, a Falmouth, Maine-based division of Dallas-based Tyler Technologies that produces the counties' tax software.

The delay did not trouble Donald Dunn, a Howard County retiree who said his tax bill "is not the kind of thing you look forward to."

"Maybe it will never come," he said jokingly.

Bills are also being mailed late in Baltimore, but computers aren't to blame. Stanley J. Milesky, the city's treasury chief, said 217,000 bills have only now begun going out because of other delays, including the July Fourth holiday, late City Council adoption of the budget and the use of a private company to print and mail the bills.

The Columbia Association has also encountered delays in mailing 26,000 bills to residents, said Keisha Reynolds, a CA spokeswoman. A complicated rebate for some residents caused a change in a new computer system - not manufactured by Munis - resulting in delays. Those bills should be mailed late this week, she said.

The computer glitches have been aggravating many county finance officials.

"My poor printer worked 24 hours around the clock over a weekend to get them out," Frederick County Treasurer Mary Christine Jackman said of her county's 83,000 bills.

She got the bills mailed, she said, only to find that the county's computer won't accept the payments.

"It's been very painful," said Cecil County Treasurer Pamela Howard. Her staff also worked around the clock in 12-hour shifts to get 43,000 tax bills mailed, she said. Now, she said, the system won't register homeowners' tax credits.

William Brown, Anne Arundel County's finance director, said Munis has provided service there for years without a problem.

Dick Peterson, president of Munis, said his division has 300 employees who do financial programming for 1,000 cities, towns and counties nationally, and tax billing for 250 clients.

"We are sorry our customers are in this situation, but we'll work with them to get them through it," he said. "Quite frankly, there were some issues that cropped up" in the new version of the software that the company installed in Maryland.

Most of Howard County's 91,000 bills were sent a week late, said Sharon Greisz, the county finance director.

"We're installing a new tax billing system" at a cost of nearly $700,000, Greisz said, adding that her staff worked through the July Fourth weekend to overcome a computer virus and other glitches to get the notices mailed.

Howard last changed its billing system 14 years ago, she said, but had no trouble then.

Patricia Petersen, finance director of Wicomico County, said the semiannual bills for residents who want to pay half of their bills now and half in December, caused her problems.

Todd Hershey, Washington County's treasurer, said the county is struggling through a second year of using the software, although the county mailed its bills on time this year.

"I just don't think we can keep functioning like we have. It's increased our costs," he said, noting that small counties don't have the staff to solve problems on their own. "We have five people in here that are working their hearts out," he said.

He suggested that a group of Maryland counties join together to find a new vendor.

Greisz said she isn't sure when Howard County might want to change tax bill software again, but she said she isn't eager to repeat the experience, "I hope not for a very long time."

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