Mobile home owners owe $781,525 in back property taxes in Walker County, according to county Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker.
Her opponent in the upcoming primary election, Keith Fults, hopes to make political hay of that number, and he raised the issue at Tuesday night's candidates' forum at the Walker County Civic Center.
"This is something that should have been done continuously," Fults told the packed hall. "I want to make sure all the taxes are being collected and collected properly."
But Walker says a number of factors contributed to that figure.
For one, she said the Walker County Assessor's Office has put mobile homes on the tax digest that no longer are there or are uninhabitable.
"He's trying to blame me for something the other office is responsible for," Walker said.
"Most of the ones that are delinquent should never have been [listed] in the first place," she said. "All I do is create the bills on mobile homes that are supposed to be there. I can't collect them if they're not there."
"I really have never had an employee that goes out and knocks on a door to see if the property still exists," she said. "Finally, this year, I have hired someone myself, not [relying] on the assessor's office to get the job done."
Walker County Chief Appraiser Terry Gilreath said the assessor's office in the past has listed mobile homes that aren't there, but employees cleared up the problem two years ago.
"We did a complete review a couple years ago," he said. "We looked at every one of them. The ones that aren't there, we took them off."
Ultimately, it's up to the mobile home owner to alert the county when they move or if the residence is uninhabitable because of fire or other disaster, he said.
"We try to tell everybody, 'Hey, you've got to let us know,'" said Gilreath, who said he's heard of mobile home owners simply tossing their bills.
"We run into that quite a bit," he said. "Don't throw [the bill] in the trash, come talk to us."
Walker attributed some of the delinquent mobile home taxes to bankruptcies, including the 169-lot Chestnut Hills and Mobile Home Village parks on Lee Avenue in Chickamauga.
Another source of mobile home tax delinquencies is people who can't afford to pay the full amount. Walker lets them make minimum $25 monthly payments, which include 1 percent a month interest and penalties if they're more than 90 days late.
"I work with people, and I think it's right to work with people," she said.
Fults agreed that's important. But he said the list of tax-delinquent mobile homes is too long.
"There's a book down there that's ... thick," he said of the list. "You can go over to Catoosa County, and they've got one page, and that's all they've got."
"It's something that, if you let go, it's going to get in this shape right here," he said.
Fults is a private real estate appraiser who worked from 1985 to 1997 as an appraiser in the Walker County Assessor's Office.
"All you've got to do is work together," he said of the two offices.
Walker has been tax commissioner since 2001, when she beat Fults for the job when the two ran in the Democratic primary for the job after incumbent Melba Powell retired.
Overall, the tax commissioner's office has a 92 percent annual collection rate, compared to about 78 percent before she started, Walker said. Annually, the office takes in about $32 million in tax payments, she said.
Walker attributed the collection rate improvement to hard work and technological advances. For example, residents soon should be able to pay their bills by scanning a code with a smartphone.
When she began, Walker said, the tax commissioner's office still did bookkeeping by pencil.
"I like to fell over," she said. "My first statement was, 'I didn't know they [still] made adult pencils."
Regarding Catoosa County's low rate of tax-delinquent mobile homes, Walker said Catoosa Tax Commissioner Sandra Self is "probably the top in the whole state of Georgia. She's got 30-plus years in the office, too."