Tough on taxes

Published 8:34 am Thursday, November 17, 2011

WINTON – One thing is certain after thumbing through page after page of parcel numbers, account information, names and addresses, there is a staggering amount of money owned to Hertford County in delinquent property taxes.

One of those 249 past due bills is as little as $241. The highest is $49,802. The majority are four figures in dollar value; a handful reach five figures. The bottom line is an eye-popping $559,679.

While Hertford County Tax Collector Gay Sumner admits that some delinquent taxpayers have set-up payment plans to settle their accounts, many have repeatedly ignored collection efforts made by county officials.

“Our standard is upon a tax bill becoming delinquent (in early January of each year), the property owner receives a second notice,” said Sumner on Monday when she presented a six page tax foreclosure list to the Hertford County Commissioners during their regularly scheduled meeting.

If that effort fails, Sumner said the next step in the collection process involves wage garnishments, bank attachments, etc. The state’s Debt Set-off Program is also used. That program “intercepts” state tax refunds or lottery winnings of delinquent taxpayers and forwards the owed amount to the county.

“Once we have exhausted all possible forms of collection, we send out a foreclosure letter that requests payment within 30 days or for them to set-up a three-month payment plan,” Sumner said. “We will work with our citizens because we are well aware that many are elderly and are on disability. This past July there was a law passed where anyone that is disabled or receiving SSI (Supplemental Security Income), if we send a bank attachment then the bank is allowed to have a few days to review that account. If there are no other funds deposited other than SSI, then we cannot attach that account. We’ll extend by a month or two collecting from those elderly taxpayers.”

After following that procedure and still without payment, Sumner said the next option was to forward the information to the county’s foreclosure attorney, who in turn sends out a letter requesting payment in full within 30 days. If the account is not settled within that 30-day period, the foreclosure process begins without further notice to the taxpayer.

As of Oct. 28, foreclosure proceedings were underway for 16 delinquent accounts. Sumner informed the commissioners that her department needed an additional $15,000 to cover professional legal services.

“We are well aware that these are tough economic times, but I feel we give these delinquent taxpayers a great deal of leeway to make these payments,” County Manager Loria Williams said. “Our past due list is getting longer and the amount of uncollected taxes has increased by $150,000 to $160,000 over the last three years.”

Williams added that she wanted the commissioners to be aware of this situation and she wanted the county to take a harder stance on delinquent taxpayers.

“It’s not a perfect world so we know there will always be some amount of taxes we’ll never collect,” Williams said. “Last year we dropped below a 95 percent collection rate for the first time in a long while and I don’t see it getting any better.

“By putting more money in the tax foreclosure process means we will become more aggressive (in tax collection) than we have in the past,” Williams continued. “We will be sending more of these past due bills to Irvine Law Firm (the county’s foreclosure attorney).”

Sumner reminded the commissioners that due to a resolution approved several years ago by the board, her department could not collect any back taxes unless they were at least two years in arrears and the amount owed in excess of $750. Also, delinquent taxes are written off the books after the statute of limitations (10 years) expires. The current list covers delinquent taxes between the years 2001 and 2010.

“If there are large accounts owed that are just on the edge of coming off the books due to the statute of limitations, we go after those first,” Williams said. “We pay close attention to that list.”

Williams added that the smaller past due accounts are just not worth the effort of collecting due to the amount of associated legal fees.

“It’s better to just let those fall off (the list); that’s where that threshold of $750 comes into play,” she noted. “But that’s your rule and you can change it.”

Sumner said property foreclosure costs are rising.

“Filing fees, title work is going up,” she said. “Depending on the amount of legal work involved, attorney fees on one foreclosure can be as much as $3,000.”

Commissioner Howard Hunter III asked if the legal fees are added into the amount of taxes owed.

“They are added, but they’re not collected until the property is sold,” said Chuck Revelle, legal counsel to the commissioners.

Once a foreclosed parcel is sold, often for less than its worth, it does place that property back on the tax rolls.

“We don’t collect a dime while that property is held; once it’s back on the books at least we’re collecting something,” Williams stated.

The board approved the additional $15,000 in professional legal services with the money coming from the county’s Contingency Fund.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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