Sunday, December 09, 2007

Good Government... Not

As noted by James Lileks, I'm not sure how this qualifies as anything other than an oops. A really big oops. A colossal oops...
Eric Mattson was not surprised that the small vacant lot he bought last year near the shores of Lake Waconia was increasing in value.

What shocked him was the $189 million market value the Carver County assessor's office came up with for the 55- by 80-foot lot, making it the most valuable property in Waconia and possibly the county.

"It was such an obvious mistake," said Mattson, 41, who was looking at a property tax bill of $2.5 million. "It was over the top. It was very funny."

...But no one is laughing at the assessor's office, where the problem started. Neither is anyone at the Carver County Board, the city of Waconia or the Waconia School District.

Those three entities -- which were counting on the $2.5 million in increased property tax collections -- now face the daunting task of raising taxes or cutting budgets to make up for the shortfall.

"This is not an 'oops.' This is a major error that affects an awful lot of people," said Mark Lundgren, director of the Carver County division that oversees the assessor's office.

...What has Lundgren and other Carver County officials most concerned is that the error was not caught for several months. It was discovered only last week when the property owners called to complain.

"Our initial reaction was shock," said Susan Arntz, Waconia's city administrator. "We were puzzled why it wasn't caught earlier by the county."

In the fall, the county sent out tax estimates to 34,000 property owners. Now, it must send out new estimates.

"We need to take accountability. This was clearly our mistake," said Carver County Administrator Dave Hemze.

Lundgren said the trouble began in August when a clerk went into Mattson's file to change the designation of the property, at 233 Lake St. E., from homestead to non-homestead to reflect its change in status after its sale.

The clerk filled in the $18,900 proposed valuation, but then mistakenly hit the key to exit the program. The computer added four zeros to fill out the nine numerical spaces required by the software, thus indicating the value was $189,000,000.

...The error was compounded when proofreaders failed to notice that the value of Mattson's property had increased by a factor of 10,000.
(hat tip: Instapundit) Good to see someone take accountability. In private industry, the accountability would be accompanied by some firings. Granted, those firings might effectively be scapegoating, but someone's head should roll for this.

Beyond that, the taxpayers should be asking why the county government doesn't have software that catches this error, let alone an effective internal auditing function that would have at least suggested something to catch errors of this magnitude. The clerk's error is forgiveable; the proofreaders' error far less so. I mean, one assumes this was the proofreaders' sole job, based on the job description. But why the hell isn't something like that automated to catch huge deviations from the norm like this? And why am I not convinced something similar won't happen elsewhere?


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