Appointment on Hold After Tax Mix-Up

Calculation error led to incorrect school bills

By Holly Crocco

After a calculation error earlier this month in school tax bills sent by Putnam County, the collection process was suspended, the deadlines extended and new bills printed and mailed.

In response, legislators last week voted to nullify the otherwise routine re-appointment of the longtime county tax director, Lisa Johnson, to a new six-year term, pending the outcome of an inquiry by the state. Legislators said the snafu cost nearly $100,000 to correct, although Finance Commissioner Bill Carlin said it was too early to put a figure on the error.

On Sept. 9, Carlin informed the county’s six school districts — Brewster, Carmel, Garrison, Haldane, Mahopac and Putnam Valley — that a software glitch caused the exemptions given to veterans to exceed the maximum, which affected other bills, as well. The county mailed corrected bills during the week of Sept. 16.

The Finance Department said the vast majority of taxpayers would see a small reduction in their corrected bills, while 3,300 will be about the same. The deadlines were extended for partial payments to Oct. 7 and for full payments to Oct. 21. Property owners who had already paid will receive a refund for any overpayment.

Johnson, who has been with the county for 23 years, was re-appointed by County Executive MaryEllen Odell earlier this year. As it routinely does, the Legislature confirmed the appointment, and Johnson’s term would have started Oct. 1.

But last week seven of the nine lawmakers voted to rescind the confirmation, with Nancy Montgomery (D-Philipstown) and Carl Albano (R-Carmel) in dissent. In the meantime, Johnson will continue overseeing property tax services.

Legislator Ginny Nacerino (R-Patterson) said during a Personnel Committee meeting on Sept. 24 that she was not assigning blame but that “the Legislature takes this matter very seriously. We feel we owe an explanation to the taxpayers and to do anything less would be irresponsible on our part.”

According to Johnson, who attended the meeting, state tax officials were able to reproduce the error but could not pinpoint whether it was caused by the software or the assessment data provided by each town that the county merges before generating the bills. The amount of each bill is determined by the assessments and the levy set by each school district.

Carlin said he was focused less on the glitch and more on establishing standards, or best practices, so that similar mistakes will be recognized before bills are mailed. He said Johnson has done a great job and that both he and Odell are “very comfortable in her appointment.”

Legislator Paul Jonke (R-Southeast) said that if the error had occurred next year, the legislators would simply be talking about installing controls. “The only reason we’re here tonight is because of the timing” of the re-appointment, he said.

Montgomery, the Legislature’s sole Democrat, expressed her “total support” for re-appointing Johnson.

“Even if the findings show that the director made a mistake, there’s always room for a second chance,” she said. “We don’t know what happened, and until we do, this is way too harsh.”

Montgomery said that town supervisors, assessors and elected officials who work with Johnson have said they do not want to see her replaced. “What I hear is, ‘Mistakes happen,’ ” she said.

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