WEST JEFFERSON-Ashe County Manager Sam Yearick says you should never leave money on the table.
But in the county’s case, over a 10-year period, it’s left roughly $3 million in property taxes uncollected, according to Ashe County Tax Administrator Keith Little.
“And that’s got to change,” Yearick said. “We’re going to work harder and be more aggressive in going after that long delinquent stuff because nobody else, no other company, would leave that kind of money uncollected. And we can’t either.”
The problem? Little said, in an average year, the county collects roughly 96 percent of the property taxes owed it, but that missing 4 percent is still worth roughly $800,000. Nearly all of those missing dollars will trickle in over a 10-year period, he said, but a small percentage, usually less than one percent, will remain uncollected even after a decade.
Add up 10 years of similar missed collections, Little said, and that’s how he arrives at the $3 million figure.
“We can’t ask the people who are paying their bill for more when we’ve got people out there who haven’t paid,” Yearick said.
Three decades behind
Yearick said at least some county property owners have failed to make a tax payment in decades. In at least one case, the owner of 16-acres of land on Horse Creek owes the county thousands and hasn’t made a payment since 1985, Yearick said.
Turns out, that property owner died in the mid-1980s which Yearick discovered only after finding a decades old obituary in the New York Times.
In another instance, Yearick said a property owner had apparently abandoned a $10,000-parcel after he sold his California-based software company and moved to Israel.
“So we’re working to contact the people we can find and taking additional steps for those we can’t,” Yearick said.
Now, Yearick promises the county will be more aggressive in its delinquent tax collection efforts than in past years.
Little said his office will reach out to property owners it can find in hopes of working out payment deals.
“Our goal is to work with people as much as we can,” Little said.
Ashe has also long had the ability to garnish wages and “attach,” or freeze the bank accounts of delinquent payers, but Little said the county has only rarely foreclosed on properties in the past.
Expect that policy to change, Yearick said, as the county uses foreclosure to sell properties owners have abandoned. He said the first batch of notices were mailed to property owners last month.
Little said the foreclosure process is relatively lengthy, and each could last three or four months, but he’s working with Ashe County Attorney John Kilby to create a system where two or three foreclosures are completed each month.
“The goal of this project is really to proceed with multiple foreclosures to try and get those back in the hands of someone who will pay us in a timely manner,” Little said.
Little couldn’t estimate the time it would take to process the majority of the county’s problem properties but said it wouldn’t end anytime soon.
“This is really going to be dependent on how long it takes (Kilby) to work through that process,” Little said. “It’s going to be a continual thing for us.”
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