Tackling a taxing problem

When was the last time you felt the urge to applaud a tax collector?

If you have the urge now, like we have, don't fight it -- Richmond County Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick deserves it. The county's recent sale of tax-delinquent properties was an encouraging success.

It's always been tough to knuckle down on the scofflaws who have let their property taxes go unpaid, sometimes over the course of several years. So when the legendary Jerry Saul stepped down as tax commissioner in 2008 after 31 years, Richmond County needed a replacement who would carry on with vigor.

Voters chose Kendrick, who pushed in his campaign for the best training and technology possible to make sure the county tax office could track down delinquent taxpayers as efficiently as possible.

What Kendrick has been doing over the past several months is the fiscal equivalent of digging under the couch cushions for loose change. In a departure from past years, this latest property sale targeted many parcels that were tax-delinquent by amounts as little as $250 or $300. If owners owe a little in a lot of places, that can add up.

Kendrick didn't set out to totally reinvent the wheel, but he's done a fine job so far in making sure the wheel rolls like it's supposed to.

Things sure were rolling at the Municipal Building on Jan. 5. That's when the county's list of tax-delinquent properties went up for sale.

At any given time about 100 people were packed in the courtroom for the auction, with folks entering and exiting constantly. Everyone at sales like this shows up looking for a bargain.

One buyer made out pretty well. William J. Duncan bought four houses. Total price for all four: $5,408.68. He and his brothers-in-law hope to flip them for higher prices later.

One house Duncan had his eye on, but couldn't buy, was on Martin Lane. It was more than $3,500 in arrears for back taxes, more than any other listed property. It's not in a bad neighborhood -- a house just down the street from it sold for almost $130,000 just a couple of years ago.

But the house was pulled from the sale. The owner, at the last minute, rushed in to pay his taxes.

That happened with a lot of the properties originally up for sale. Especially in the week leading up to the auction, once owners got wind that their houses would be put on the block, a lot of them poured in to pay about $50,000 in back taxes.

Which is kind of the point. The government doesn't enjoy turning people out of their homes. It just wants the taxes owed. If such auctions light a fire under delinquent taxpayers, great.

In economic times like these, new property taxes are the last thing citizens need. It's much more sensible to aggressively go after the taxes that already have been levied.

And if you want to get in on the next property sale, mark your calendars now -- another auction is being planned for early March.

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