Case of the Missing Tax Bills

    The failure to find a hefty bill in one’s mail would not be a cause for dismay, one might think, but in the case of East Hampton Town property tax bills, a number of which appear to have gone missing in the mail, the missing bills have caused consternation among residents in danger of incurring penalties for paying late, or losing the opportunity to claim property taxes as a deduction on their 2012 tax returns.
    Payments of the first half of 2102-13 property taxes were due on January 10, and property owners are responsible for paying up on time regardless of whether a notice is received. Tax bills are, however, drawn up and mailed out in mid-December, a process that was followed this year, before something apparently went wrong.
    Just what might have happened — and how to avoid its occurrence in the future — was discussed at an East Hampton Town Board meeting on Tuesday.
    Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson apologized to affected property owners on behalf of the town, “even though the tax receiver’s office made accommodations,” he said. “Even though I’m told that it’s every resident and taxpayer’s responsibility to ensure they get their payments in, regardless of whether they get a bill or not.”
    In order to help those who did not receive tax bills, the town tax receiver’s office, led by Monica Rottach, the appointed tax receiver, e-mailed, faxed, and provided taxes due information to property owners by phone. For those who came in to the office, they printed out new bills on the spot.
    “That being said, we have 20,000, 22,000 bills we send out, and we’re here to uncover what took place so history doesn’t repeat itself,” Mr. Wilkinson said Tuesday. The number of people who paid their taxes late — 1,400, according to Len Bernard, the town budget officer — is 50 percent higher than last year, Mr. Wilkinson said. “Something changed.”
    In the “worst-case scenario,” Mr. Bernard told the board, 800 to 900 property owners could have been affected. However, that number, derived by analyzing the number of late payments and other factors, could actually be far fewer, once other variables, such as other reasons for late payments, are factored in.
    Town board members said they had heard from several bill-less constituents, and several have written letters to The East Hampton Star complaining that they did not receive a bill. Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc said he was among those who didn’t get that particular piece of mail.
    Every year, said Mr. Bernard, a number of bills are returned as undeliverable, because, for instance, the property owner’s address on file with the town is outdated and they lack a forwarding address. This time around 650 bills were returned.
    But, he said, “What we do know is there are bills that were not received by people whose addresses didn’t change, whose mortgages didn’t change.”
    Mr. Bernard provided an overview of the billing process to the board, which, he said, is dictated by legal deadlines and benchmarks.
    “We cannot do anything until the county adopts the tax warrant for all the towns in the county,” he said. That takes place at the first meeting of the County Legislature in December, he said.
    Once the warrant is adopted, the town can begin a weeklong process of checking to make sure that the property tax bills will equal the warrant “to the penny,” Mr. Bernard said. Then a two or three-day task of printing out the bills begins.
    It is not until mid-December that the town can hand over the bills to Design Distributors, a Deer Park company that folds them, places them in envelopes, and mails them out.
    Ms. Rottach said that about 21,000 tax bills were printed. The town has some 24,000 individual parcels of land, she said, though not all pay taxes. Some bills are mailed directly by the town.
    On Dec. 19, she said, Design Distributors was given 17,857 bills. The others were mailed that day at the East Hampton Post Office. There were few problems, if any, with the bills mailed here in town.
    According to Adam Avrick, the president of Design Distributors, who attended Tuesday’s meeting to help town officials with their forensic review, the company picked up printed bills from the town on Dec. 14 and spent two days folding and inserting them into envelopes. They were then picked up by a postal worker, and a count performed to verify all the bills were there. A postal supervisor personally observed as the mail was put into the system at the Postal Service’s Mid-Island Processing and Distribution facility in Hicksville.
    “This is actually handled with kid gloves,” Mr. Avrick said. “It’s handled differently” from other mail, he said. But, he added, “there are specific instances where mail gets waylaid, or gets put on a skid and sent to a different place. It’s rare, but it does take place.”
    “I think it’s pretty clear that something happened to those bills in the mail,” Mr. Bernard said. “The bills got to the post office, and the bills got in the postal system, and from there something happened.”
    Southampton Town had a similar problem, he said. Although it uses a different mail distributor, Southampton’s bills were also taken to the same postal distribution center. “I think that’s more than a coincidence,” Mr. Bernard said.
    Mike Robinson, the East Hampton postmaster, was also on hand at the meeting. He said he started looking into the situation toward the end of December, when he started getting complaints from residents about missing tax bills, and said that faulty addresses seemed to be the problem. However, he could tell that some of the mailed bills, which did eventually show up, had gone through the system more than once, because marks indicated several readings by machines of the barcodes on the envelopes.
    “I’m sure there’s a percentage where the machine may have ‘burped,’ ” he said, “but the larger percentage is human error on the part of the taxpayer; that’s what I saw.”
    “I think the tax receiver handled it very well,” Mr. Bernard said of the response to the problem. “And the [tax] collection at this point is equivalent to last year.”