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Examiners cites collector with state ethics violations

By By Robert Blankenship, Special to The Advance
n an audit report, state tax examiners report that Escambia County Tax Collector Bob Bonner may be in conflict with several state ethics laws, including not paying fees and interest on a delinquent payment for property he owned.
According to the Code of Alabama 1975, all ad valorem taxes that become delinquent bear interest at 12 percent. The interest must be added to and collected as part of the taxes.
However, according to the report, "the tax collector made delinquent payments on property he owned personally for the 1998, 1999 and 2000 tax years without being charged fees and interest."
The report continued to read, "Also, the tax collector accepted numerous delinquent payments from other taxpayers without collecting fees and interest."
Bonner said he did make the mistake of not paying the late fee for three years. However, he said he paid the fee, along with the penalties and interest compounded for the three years, prior to the audit of his office taking place. The total amount he paid was $299.
On the charge of not collecting late fees from other residents, Bonner said his office has continued to operate on the same philosophy since he started working there 19 years ago.
"The rest of those late charges were not collected due to mistakes made by this office," Bonner said. "We feel that when we are in error, it is wrong to make the taxpayer pay the penalty. I've done it this way for the past 20 years and it was that way before me. But, that's not what the law says."
Those "errors" he said were when clerks failed to to assess property or bill landowners.
Another item listed as possible ethic infractions regarded property owned during tax years 1998 through 2000.
The report also acknowledged that Bonner "made a supplemental assessment for the 2001 tax year to correct these matters."
"It was strictly an oversight on my part and it was taken care of before the audit," Bonner said.
Bonner said the accusations regarded 49 acres of property he owns near the interstate on Hwy. 113. According to the collector, in 1998, a road paving company approached him to rent some property to store asphault, gravel and other items while they were contracted for a job along the interstate. Bonner said he did not change the assessment of the property from current use to Class II commercial.
"I rented out five acres to this company and it never dawned on me to change the assessment," Bonner said. "It was a common mistake."
Bonner said he paid $592 back prior to the audit for the commercial assessment.
In addition, the audit states that, according to lease documents, that two portions of a large parcel owned by Bonner were converted to a "use not so qualified." The report states that "one lease should have been reported and assessed for the 1998, 1999 and 2000 tax years while the other should have been reported and assessed for the 2000 tax year."
The state also requires that every person make a "true and distinct statement of all real and personal property … for which he is the owner."
According to documents maintained by the Escambia County Tax Assessor, Bonner failed to file a return of personal property for private businesses he owned since the 1998 tax year. In addition, the audit states that the personal property returns filed by Bonner for the 1998 tax year did not contain all the information needed to make a proper assessment.
The report states that the tax assessor office levied a penalty, along with a fee, against the personal property owned by the tax collector for every year since 1998 except for the 2002 tax year when Bonner filed a personal property return.
The audit recognizes that Bonner "paid the escapes, supplemental assessments, delinquent fees, interest and penalties at the conclusion of the examination."
According to Bonner, not having the proper assessment values for his two properties, both Huddle House restaurants, actually cost him thousands of dollars by overpaying taxes.
"I did not have the property assessed properly," he said. "It was assessed at $248,342 more than its actual value. I paid $1,175 more each year for the past three years than what I will pay this coming year. Of course, they aren't going to give me any of that money back."
Bonner said he hoped that local residents will accept that these are mistakes and that he is proud of what he has been able to achieve as tax collector.
"I hope that the people of Escambia County know that everyone makes mistakes. I've made mine. I hope they will look at my 20 years of service and the things that have been done in the tax collector's office and be forgiving," he said.
Bonner did not seek re-election as he is planning to retire. Joy Wiggins, a current employee at the collector's office, won the office after the primaries as she faces no Republican candidate. Wiggins will take Bonner's place in October 2003.