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Harford audit raises issues with county real estate records

Harford County doesn't have a complete inventory of its real estate, lease payments are not always made on time, if at all, or in the correct amount when they are paid, according to a recent audit of the county government's real estate holdings.

County government officials say they hope a new database will help them keep better track of real estate, after a recent audit found the problems.

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The findings, which tracked county real estate over a two-year period, include occasional late payments on 31 leases out of 68, three leases underpaid by about $11,500, four leases overpaid by about $5,600 and three where the lease agreement could not be found.

Eight of 25 records from the state's assessment listing — for property valued at a total of $4.1 million — were also not included in the county's inventory listing.

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Seven real estate assets were missing, including one valued at $238,000 that county auditor Chrystal Brooks said was a parcel near the water in Edgewood. That parcel was found to have been taken over by private property owners.

That property was originally obtained before 1961 and assessed at $1,000, but could not be found in the auditing firm's land-record system or by the state's assessment department.

Assessment department officials "believe that the property has been absorbed by the neighboring lots over the years," according to the audit.

County officials seem hopeful that tracking real estate assets will be easier with an established Facilities Master Plan, which was completed within the past month.

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The plan includes a database — to be managed by the Department of Planning and Zoning — which was expected to be finished by now, but is not done, county procurement director Deb Henderson said.

Henderson's department had been working on a similar database, but stopped as the planning and zoning system was put forward, she said.

She said a database was developed years ago, but was not kept up to date.

Henderson also said the underpaid or overpaid leases have been corrected and her office implemented additional oversight measures to prevent similar problems in the future.

"We have changed administrative personnel and we have reviewed our process," Henderson said, noting the personnel changes were not in response to the audit findings.

"Every once in a while, things fall through the cracks," she added. "Certainly, I was concerned."

She said she would be more concerned "if it was something we weren't doing to capture all the information and to do the process correctly, but I know we have good people working here."

The facilities master plan is intended as a "living document," meaning it would be regularly updated, she said.

Brooks also said she was not overly concerned or surprised by the findings. She explained many of the county's real estate holdings include roads or rights-of-way, so "it's not like there are buildings on the side of the road and nobody knows who owns them."

Nevertheless, she said, "there is clearly a need to figure out what all the items [properties] are and where they are."

"It has not been inventoried in a way that is being done now," Brooks said.

Brooks paid Hamilton Enterprises, LLC, of Greenbelt, $10,531.75 to perform the audit, explaining she thought it was important to complete it by the end of the year, but her office of two employees did not have time to do it.

Also, "we thought it was a subject matter that was hopefully straightforward enough," Brooks said.

Brooks said her office allocated about $25,000 for 2014 for audits that the office would be unable to do internally.

The real estate audit was the only such audit to be done externally this year, she said.

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