Archive for Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gas tax error shorts Leavenworth, Douglas counties

October 21, 2008

Topeka — Douglas County has been shorted $340,000, and possibly much more, because of an error in calculation of state gasoline tax reimbursements to counties, while Leavenworth County is $192,000 short.

And the error has become an issue in the 2nd Congressional District race because the Republican candidate, State Treasurer Lynn Jenkins, is responsible for disbursing the gas tax to counties.

Jenkins is challenging U.S. Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Topeka, for the district, which includes western Douglas County and Leavenworth County

Boyda raised the issue during a debate last week.

The dispute is over Jenkins’ responsibility for disbursing highway equalization funds to Kansas counties under a formula the Legislature established.

Earlier this year, Jenkins notified state leaders that an error was discovered in the disbursement that led to an incorrect distribution of funds to counties.

Some counties got too much, and some not enough. Douglas County received $340,000 too little, as did Shawnee County, $1 million; and Leavenworth County, $192,000.

Jenkins’ office said the error was programmed into the system in 1999 -- three years before she was elected state treasurer. Jenkins has praised her staff for discovering the problem.

Democrats, however, say that the issue undermines Jenkins’ assertion that as a certified public accountant she would be able to rein in the federal budget. She should have caught the mistake earlier, they say.

“Now she’s saying it isn’t her job to make sure 15 million in taxpayer dollars goes to the right counties, despite those funds being specifically under her control,” said Kansas Democatic Party executive director Mike Gaughan. “For an accountant, Lynn Jenkins seems to have zero interest in accountability.”

State Treasurer general counsel Scott Gates said the formula for calculating the counties’ share of gas tax equalization payments was changed in 1999 by state law but it wasn’t adjusted at the treasurer’s office. The miscalculation was also exacerbated in Douglas County’s case because vehicle registrations, also a part of the reimbursement formula, that were made at satellite offices were not counted by the Kansas Department of Revenue.

Gates said Douglas County is owed $340,000 for the fiscal year that ended June 30. It is also probably owed more money from previous years, he said, but officials haven’t calculated that amount yet.

Douglas County officials say they just became aware of the snafu.

County Administrator Craig Weinaug said the county could use the money because the worsening economy is going to produce a budget squeeze.

“Our outlook is not going to be positive for a couple of years,” Weinaug said.

But when will Douglas County get its money, if ever?

Gates said that would require legislation when lawmakers start the 2009 session in January.

If that’s the case, Weinaug said Douglas County may never the get funds because it would require legislators having to take money back from some counties that were overpaid. Weinaug said that is probably impossible from a political standpoint.

“Politically, people remember longer what you take away than what you give them,” he said.

Weinaug said he understands mistakes happen, but he said the treasurer’s office should have notified counties of the error as soon as it found out.

Gates said the treasurer’s office told the counties in late June about the problem in writing when the equalization payments were sent out.

But Weinaug said the notification made no mention of Douglas County being shorted $340,000, nor have treasurer officials contacted the county.

Weinaug criticized the way the treasurer’s office has handled the situation since discovering the error.

“I’m glad they caught the mistake,” Weinaug said. But, he added, “once they caught it the first people they should have talked to was the people that are impacted, and that still hasn’t occurred.”

He said a similar incident happened several years ago when Douglas County made a mistake in sending gas funds back to townships. Once the error was discovered, county officials immediately sat down with township officials to sort through the matter, he said.


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