Pulaski County Assessor Janet Troutman Ward isn’t even thinking about going back to business as usual.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Ward’s staff of 110 has been split into two teams who alternate weeks working from home and at the Pulaski County Administration Building at 201 S. Broadway in Little Rock. It’s been months since county employees worked in the seven satellite offices located inside Arkansas Revenue Office locations scattered around the county.
“I don’t foresee us going back to substations any time soon,” Ward told Arkansas Business last week. Pulaski County Treasurer Debra Buckner, who had staff in four of the substations, has tentatively come to the same conclusion.
State Revenue Commissioner Charlie Collins said he had not heard from the Pulaski County officials about a change to what he called an “informal partnership,” but he didn’t seem surprised. The pandemic, he said, is “accelerating the future” and “Pulaski County is the largest county in Arkansas and they are probably on the leading edge of thinking” about efficiency.
The county government pays no rent to the state for the shared space, so abandoning the substations will not create a direct savings to the county or cost the state revenue. And Collins said there had been no systemic problems in allowing residents to assess vehicles with the county and register and license them with the state at the one-stop satellites.
“But it is a major situation to keep those substations constantly filled,” Ward said, adding that she’d found that losing the satellites had not disrupted her office’s ability to its job. She cited a record number of assessments and more assessed on time — and therefore fewer late penalties — than is typical.
The Pulaski County Board of Equalization has even heard 352 appeals of property appraisals by online conference during the pandemic, Ward said. And Buckner, the treasurer, last month opened drive-through tax-payment lanes at Centennial Bank branches in west Little Rock, southwest Little Rock and North Little Rock in the runup to Thursday’s deadline for personal and real property taxes assessed in 2019.
As for resuming in-person satellite services, “I can’t see how it would serve taxpayers better,” Ward said.
The Revenue Division of the state Department of Finance & Administration, which Collins has led since November, operates 134 revenue offices, at least one in each of the state’s 75 counties. While the Pulaski assessor and treasurer have stationed staff inside state-owned or -leased office space, in some counties, state revenuers are the guests of local government. And that patchwork of revenue offices that Collins inherited has meant service has not been uniform statewide during the pandemic.
“When COVID first hit in March, the central question was were you going to keep a facility open or were you going to shut it down?” Collins said. “We chose to keep all of our revenue offices throughout [the pandemic]. We’ve never shut them down as a policy,” Collins said.
But when the local hosts — city or county governments — shut their offices, those revenue offices were also out of commission. And Pulaski isn’t the only county that has not resumed in-person service in state offices, although a desire to get back to that routine seems to be “the preponderance” of what he’s hearing from counties around the state.
“I envision this process continuing to evolve until we get to a new normal that isn’t changing as much as it’s been changing over the past few months,” he said. “If the counties choose to come back, or to come back in a restricted fashion, we’re flexible.”
The goal of restricting human contact to minimize risk of viral transmission has taken various forms in the Revenue Department, Collins said, including physical barriers — “some as simple as shower curtain barriers” — masks and social distancing. Collins said he has not undertaken any kind of “master plan” for the future of statewide revenue offices, but the state is “trying to make the online offerings, access and experience more attractive,” he said, and that could — someday — mean fewer in-person offices would be necessary.