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Commissioners will discuss suing property tax software company

Like a gambler dealt a bad poker hand, Hubbard County left $200,000 on the table Tuesday and walked away from its new property recording, billing and tax assessment software.

County board members will discuss suing Manatron, the Michigan-based company that promised to streamline its tax assessment records and never delivered on promises, county coordinator Jack Paul said.

The county has become increasingly frustrated with the company, which has not responded to numerous Enterprise inquiries about its program - or to county officials who paid Manatron $200,000 to get the program up and running.

At one point last winter commissioners voted to withhold $7,000 in funds until the company provided answers to the numerous problems already building.

Hubbard County purchased the software with a consortium of other counties through Minnesota Counties Computer Cooperative. It was supposed to have been operational in 2008. The county has hired outside experts to help get the program launched, but it has not performed to expectations, Paul said.

Commissioners say the company has never fulfilled its contractual obligations.

"It's crunch time and we've gotta get things out now that are correct so we're gonna go back to ACS," Paul said of the county's old tax software. "We've got tax statements to print and mail."

The county board, which was meeting when the Enterprise went to press this week, was expected to forward the matter to Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne to explore litigation.

"There's things that have to get out, that have to be totally accurate, the settlements and delinquencies, which means also later abatements," Paul said. "And we want the mailings to be, when people get their tax statements, we want them to be right on to the buck."

Commissioners were expected to vote to renew a software agreement with ACS Property Tax, the program the county has used for the past several years.

"Ten counties have now bailed out of the original 27 (that purchased the software) and we would be the 11th," Paul said. "Four or five of those have bailed in the last two weeks because everybody's looking at the calendar and saying, 'Holy smokes!' the statements have to go out in March to be payable in May and it isn't happening."

All 10 counties have walked away from their $200,000 investments, Paul said.

He believes the company, which installed tax assessment software for several other states, was simply not equipped to follow through on its bid for the software because Minnesota's tax system is so complicated.

"I think they thought they'd just have to modify a few things but the state of Minnesota's tax system has so many permutations and combinations that I don't think they knew what they were getting into," Paul said.

But aside from the frustrations county officials have with the company, Paul said there's a larger issue looming.

"The property tax system is so important that the state ought to be paying, finding a system, and not depending on small counties with limited expertise among their assessors and auditors to go and find some vendor that says they're going to do it right," he said.

"This ought to be a state responsibility and the Legislature keeps changing the tax stuff and we have to always find a vendor that can play catch-up to that."

Paul said finding tax support vendors should be a state function. He has no problem with counties paying for the expertise, but he said Hubbard County's recent experience should serve as an example that it isn't feasible for small counties to undertake such responsibilities.

"Hennepin County is still going with them (Manatron) but they have their own IT department so it's a little different system for them," said commissioner Don Carlson. "In fact, Hennepin County is putting $12 million into it. We don't have $12 million."