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County Apologizes for, Rectifies Tax Bill Mix-Up

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A computer snafu by a county government worker caused about 2,000 Oxnard business owners to receive tax delinquency notices--even though they never received their tax bills in the first place.

The Ventura County tax collector’s office began correcting the mix-up this week by preparing to mail business owners their bills, extending the payment deadline and apologizing for the combination of human and technological errors.

“We were sitting there fat and happy, thinking all the [tax bills] had gone out successfully,” said Assistant Treasurer-Tax Collector John McKinney on Friday. “We are sorry.”

Chiropractor Ray Lopez received a delinquency notice this month ordering him to pay $636 in taxes plus a 10% penalty, or face having a lien placed against his business.

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“I was dumbfounded, because as a small-business owner, I see the bills coming in,” Lopez said. He could not remember having received an original tax bill.

The confusion slowly turned to anger.

Lopez said he called the tax collector to find out what was going on, but was constantly put on hold. He then found out that many other businesses near his A Street office had also received delinquency notices.

About 40 other businesses called the tax collector with similar concerns, officials said. Many of those who received late notices have businesses in downtown Oxnard or in the industrial area near Camarillo.

This week, county tax officials disclosed that they had erred by failing to send the proprietors their bills, and then issuing delinquency notices.

According to county tax officials, the problem began in July.

The county was in the process of sending out annual unsecured property tax bills. Such taxes are levied primarily on business owners with equipment and inventory, as well as on some owners of large boats and private planes.

Collected from about 42,000 Ventura County businesses, the taxes generate about $20 million a year. The tax bills were mailed in July and due this month.

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McKinney said the problems started with a county data processing worker’s faulty keystroke.

The worker was to hit the “K” key to print the 2,000 Oxnard tax bills, but inadvertently hit “K” twice.The bills were saved by the computer but never printed.

Compounding matters, a software program designed to check that all tax bills had been mailed inaccurately reported that everything was in order. On top of that, county workers never checked to see whether the bills were printed, McKinney said.

Although 40,000 bills were mailed without problems, the 2,000 Oxnard business owners received late notices that warned of possible liens. Liens are taken seriously, McKinney acknowledged, because they can affect businesses’ chances of getting bank loans.

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When complaints began coming in from Oxnard business owners, the tax collector’s office thought the U.S. Postal Service was to blame. But an investigation revealed that the problems were internal.

The new tax payment deadline for the businesses is Oct. 17. Lopez said there is lingering frustration among business owners about the mix-up.

“I can only hazard to guess it was a lackadaisical attitude” that caused the error, he said. “I hope it does not pervade the county work force.”

The tax collector’s office said the worker who made the initial error has received remedial computer training.

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