$1.4 million collected in tax sales since July 1

SHEILA MATHEWS ::: sheila@the-grip.net

With nearly $4.75 million owed in unpaid property taxes through 2012, officials are making a concerted effort to move forward with tax sales to recoup monies owed in delinquent cases by conducting tax sales on the courthouse steps on a nearly-monthly basis. Significant progress has been made since the beginning of Fiscal Year 2014, with $1.4 million having been collected since July 1.

According to Spalding County Tax Commissioner Sylvia Hollums, the process is a complex one, which she views as a positive thing for taxpayers.

“It should not be easy for us to take people’s property. It should be a diligent process,” she said.

Hollums said the process can begin soon after the taxes fall into delinquency, but because of the many steps in the process, cannot really begin the day after taxes are due. “First of all, there are things we have to do before we sell a property on the courthouse steps.”

Hollums explained the process begins with the issuance of a 30-day notice of intent to file a fifa, or tax lien.

She said oftentimes, this is all that is necessary to collect the overdue taxes.

“Things happen,” she said. “Sometimes people just don’t have the money when it’s originally due, and a lot of taxes are paid by mortgage companies that have required escrow accounts. We may receive one large payment from a mortgage company that covers a number of property owners.”

Once the notice to file a tax lien has been mailed to the property owner, the countdown begins.

“After 30 days, it’s recorded in the Clerk of Court’s office,” Hollums said.

Because they must be filed the day they are received in the clerk’s office, she said her office sends them over in manageable batches.

Once filed by the clerk, an independent business – Delinquent Tax Services (DTS) – is utilized for some of the administrative aspects of the process.

Hollums said Spalding County, along with the vast majority of counties state-wide, use such private businesses to avoid the up-front costs associated with the tax lien process.

“It’s not cheap when we get to this point in a tax lien. Delinquent Tax Services pays all these costs up front and only receives compensation if the tax bill gets paid,” she said. “We would be paying these costs up front, and it would have to be included in the budget, which would increase my budget.”

The process undertaken by DTS begins with a title search, wherein all the property’s rightful owners are located and notified of the tax lien. In addition, any lien holders, such as mortgage companies, are notified of the unpaid taxes.

Once that step has been completed, the property owners and any tenants must be notified of the pending levy within five days.

“Lien holders also have to be notified 20 days before it’s advertised,” Hollums said. “Notices are advertised for four consecutive Fridays before the first Tuesday (of the month).”

By state law, all tax sales must take place between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on that day.

For some Spalding County residents, the recent millage rate increase is attributed to the non-collection of past due taxes, but according to Hollums, no county official has control over the final outcome of tax liens and levies.

“Some properties, people just aren’t interested in,” she said, adding that some properties in tax sales never receive a single bid.

Other factors outlined in state law may also serve as a deterrent to potential tax sale purchasers.

“When someone buys on the courthouse steps, there’s a 12-month right of redemption,” Hollums said.

This means the buyer, by law, may not even set foot on the property they purchased, and that the previous owner may at any time during that 12-month period redeem the parcel by paying the purchase price plus 20 percent.

“It’s also buyer beware – we don’t have to warranty anything,” Hollums said. “That’s why you’ll see (on the Tax Commissioner’s website) a lot of the older stuff there – there was no interested buyer, so we couldn’t sell it.”

In addition, of the approximately $4.75 million in past due property taxes, roughly $800,000 is tied up in bankruptcies, which prevent tax sales on the associated properties.

Despite the protracted process, Hollums said her office strives to move forward with efforts to recover unpaid property taxes by holding tax sales as often as possible.

“We try to have one every month. I think I’ve levied (or sold) approximately 4,000 parcels over the past few years, so we’ve been at it,” she said. “It’s just that sometimes, people don’t see it.” Ω

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