On October 26, 2016, the Montgomery County Taxpayers League hosted a meeting with the Director of the Department of Permitting Services and with a representative from the Department of Finance focusing on the IG-17-001 report dated August 25, 2016, on revenue from reassessments. More specifically, the interest of the Taxpayers League was in how the DPS was addressing corrective actions for improving building permit information to SDAT. DPS made it clear to us that it is not in agreement with the appropriateness and cost-effectiveness of several of the IG’s recommendations.
After asking for a response from the DPS – and receiving none – the following observations and recommendations were sent to members of the the County Council on November 10, 2016, making a business case for an independent review of the Department of Permitting Services focusing on streamlined reassessments:
The DPS is responsible for a wide range of permitting services, and has to consider how best to allocate resources between competing public safety and economic development objectives as it processes its workload.
We believe that equitable and efficient tax collection depends on compliance by permit applicants and DPS and SDAT workflows. We think the DPS is at a critical juncture with SDAT, and that the County needs to improve property tax collections or face even higher tax burdens.
We were unaware of the complexity of the tasks performed by the 85 inspectors and 30 permit technicians, comprising 115 of the total 236 total employees at DPS. In addition to SDAT, DPS also interfaces with the Department of Finance, with MCPPC (for address data base to get tax IDs), and with the public. It appears that, over time, DPS has expanded its core mission to include the collection of impact taxes and funding and possibly even performing SDATs job. While we compliment the DPS on performing next day inspections, we wonder whether it is at the cost of weak follow-up for existing permits as we have heard of instances of occupancy permits in arrears when homes are sold.
In short, permitting is a complex business process. We believe that DPS must be managed to optimize property reassessment tax revenues while continuing to achieve public safety and economic development objectives. This may be a tall order for DPS with aging workflows and systems and a growing workload.
We estimate that inefficient DPS and SDAT processes cost Montgomery County $10M a year in reassessment revenues with the caveat that this number may be subject to estimating errors based on a small sample and based on assumptions about data to which we have no access. A new Finance Department internal control could detect and correct errors by comparing expired permits to assessments and measure and monitor the size of the problem. This is an important new internal control which should be added to the management plan of DPS.
Based on the DPS and Finance presentation at our meeting, here are three preliminary observations and recommendations to make revenue collection more efficient:
1. Relationship with SDAT Needs More Controls – SDAT may not be able to implement the changes needed to get timely and accurate reassessments without more help from DPS. DPS has reached out to SDAT with technology and technical assistance. However, SDAT only gets 10% of collections, which amounts to a poor incentive for the State. We learned that the Montgomery County pays ½ of SDAT costs and deserves more control over reassessments. The recent history of new DPS reports (those for occupancy permits, demolitions, residential and commercial use, and tax IDs) all took place in the last year under duress of audit and Council scrutiny and not as a result of continuous improvement by on-going control systems.
2. Data Collection and Integrity Weaknesses – There are issues that need to be resolved related to responsibility for missing or incorrect tax IDs, erroneous or lowball cost estimates submitted by home owners on permit applications, alternatives SDAT has for information needed to trigger reassessments outside the 3-year cycle, and how cost validation could slow down processing by DPS permit technicians. We questioned DPS responsibility for verifying construction completion independent of builder notifications and were told that a recent procedure to compare sales to outstanding permits was now in place. In short, improved data could involve more work by DPS with higher costs but could also lead to higher compliance rates. We have learned that some expired permits were corrected with occupancy permits at the time of sale with no retroactive change to assessments. We are concerned that if key data does not get validated, it creates lots of rework, and sends a negative message to applicants.
3. Accountability Gaps – Trade-offs between public safety and economic development objectives need to be resolved to improve DPS workflows. The limited controls over data or processing errors noted above lead to reduced property tax collections, in part because responsibilities and property tax revenue targets for reassessments are not set for DPS or for the Department of Finance. Inspectors are key to moving the process along and reaching milestones for reassessments, but it was noted that inspector productivity has not been benchmarked against Howard or Fairfax counties. It appears to us whatever standards exist may be the product of negotiations with the union and not by the establishment of objective, outside benchmarks. For instance, are there productivity standards for permit technicians? There are also legal questions about how far back the county can go to tax a major improvement that it did not reassess after the improvement was built, and also how far back the county can go to collect tax if a reassessment after improvement had errors such as not enough square feet, property quality or condition not accurate.
Given these observations, we recommend an independent review be performed of DPS workflows and Finance Department controls, as well as productivity and organizational accountabilities to determine what’s best for the county. The study would need to look at alternate workflows and automation and to replace legacy systems that would improve productivity, timeliness and quality. It would also need to look at strategic issues like improved accountability and controls for new and issued permit follow-up, and even new legislation to increase revenues by shifting responsibilities from SDAT to DPS to streamline reassessments.