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Amherst admits $100,000 in tax errors; School property tax, water usage fee wrong

The Town of Amherst made mistakes in tax bills last week that resulted in roughly 300 property owners being overcharged more than $100,000 in excess water usage and school property taxes.

Superintendent Barry Weinstein said he was dismayed that "human error" resulted in more than a dozen taxpayers being falsely cited for unpaid school tax bills that were, in fact, paid, and that hundreds of property owners were listed as having used twice the amount of water as they really used.

"I'm upset," Weinstein said. "I'm not used to mistakes."

Town Assessor Harry Williams said he estimates that around 280 taxpayers received inflated sewer charges on their Erie County tax bill because the town inadvertently doubled the amount of water used by those property owners.

Town sewer taxes are partially based on water usage. Given the current rate of $3.48 per 1,000 gallons used, and the average amount of household water consumed by Erie County Water Authority customers, The Buffalo News estimates the town easily may have overcharged residents $85,000 or more.

The town did not catch the problem until complaints started coming in late last week, after tax bills were mailed out Tuesday and Wednesday.

Resident Katie Evans, a longtime resident of Woodshire North in Getzville, said she noticed that her bill jumped from about $250 last year to about $490 this year. Many other neighbors on her street noticed a similar spike.

Initially, she said, her neighbors were told they had to go to Town Hall and fill out paperwork before their bills would be corrected, even though they didn't cause the problem.

"I was not pleased that town people required us to go into the town building and complete forms and get the difference later," she said.

Williams said he now intends to send a letter to affected property owners Wednesday with the paperwork they'll need to get their bills adjusted by the county or to get a refund for overcharges from the town.

The sewer tax errors were not limited to a single neighborhood, nor were only residential homes affected. So were commercial properties, town officials said.

Jerry Galkiewicz, director of the town's Information Technology Department, said that every August, the Water Authority sends a file with Amherst residents' water-usage data for the past four quarters. That data is cross-referenced against the town's tax records to match water-usage data with the correct property owner.

But in cases where the tax identification numbers provided by the authority don't match up with the tax ID numbers the town has on record, the Information Technology Department works with the Assessor's Office to reconcile individual records.

"Somewhere in the updating, something got entered twice," Galkiewicz said.

Town officials said they believe they have identified all affected property owners.

In a separate but related billing problem, Weinstein said that last year the Town Clerk's Office failed to record the fact that 14 taxpayers had paid their school taxes. As a result, they received bills last week charging them with failing to pay $61,741 in back taxes. They also were assessed late penalties.

These 14 property owners had apparently paid their bills in October through an HSBC branch in Snyder, Weinstein said. The bank properly recorded the transaction, deposited the money and forwarded the hard copies of the payments to the Town Clerk's Office.

Town Clerk Marjory Jaeger, who replaced former clerk Deborah Bruch Bucki in January, said the office overlooked a single envelope in October from the HSBC branch with the transaction documentation.

"The first time we realized we had a problem was Thursday, when we got a call," she said.

Corrected bills, minus late charges and penalties, were being reissued Monday and today, Jaeger said.

Though it is not unusual for there to be some lag in reconciling tax accounts, Jaeger and Weinstein expressed concern that -- until last week -- the town's school tax accounts contained roughly $80,000 more money than could be properly accounted for.

Now, nearly $20,000 in mystery school tax money still needs to be reconciled.

"I don't believe the 2011 school tax bills were ever balanced," Weinstein said.

Former clerk Deborah Bruch Bucki said she left Jaeger and Weinstein a memo when she left office informing them of the discrepancy and advised them to work with her deputy clerk to reconcile the issue before the annual audit.

She also said her office received good marks from last year's audit and that no one contacted her about the issue before discussing the matter at Monday's work session.

"I tried to be responsible under the time constraints that I had," she said. "We dealt with 43,000 parcels. It's certainly regrettable that this occurred. When all was said and done, I knew there was an excess of money in the account."