Treasurer hoofs it to make sure people don't lose the farm

Becky Vargo • Apr 2, 2018 at 12:00 PM

Ottawa County Treasurer Bradley Slagh has been knocking on doors recently in a last ditch effort to give people a chance to pay back taxes before they lose their home or farm.

He was out in the Coopersville and Marne areas last week, trying to make contact with people who had not been in touch with his office staff regarding their payments. Both residents would have lost their property on April 2, Slagh said, but both were home at the time and a resolution was reached.

“It’s amazing to me how thankful people are when you show up at their door,” he said. “People are really busy. There are workers who can’t come in during the day. There are elderly people not able to take care of their homes by themselves anymore.”

Slagh said it’s a three-year collection process, so anyone in danger of losing his or her property this year would have failed to make payments in 2015.

The county treasurer explains the process this way:

Cities and townships issue property tax bills that are based on the taxable value of a property. Let’s assume the tax bills were sent out in 2015. For property owners that paid the property taxes before March 1, 2016, that is it. From that payment, taxes are distributed to all of the other taxing entities (such as the county park system, your local public schools, etc.). 

If taxes were not paid, there is a legal responsibility to collect them. In the past four years, taxes on approximately 3,300 parcels each year were not paid on time, and were turned over to the county treasurer’s office by local governments for collection. The treasurer “purchases” the delinquent taxes, and then begins the effort of collecting on them. Almost two years later, parcels (including the owners’ names) with still unpaid taxes are listed in the supplement published in December in The Holland Sentinel and Grand Haven Tribune.

At the end of March (this year April 2), property taxes still unpaid from 2015 (or before) requires the county treasurer to take the final step in this two-year process by foreclosing on property. Unlike mortgage foreclosures, which can be redeemed after foreclosure, property tax foreclosures are final there is no redemption period after the foreclosure date. 

When the county forecloses on a property, it first is required to offer it to the State of Michigan in exchange for the taxes owed. If the state declines, it is offered to the local government unit. If the government unit declines, the county can take it or put it up for auction.

Auctions are held twice a year. During the first auction, the property can be obtained for the taxes owed, Slagh said. If the property doesn’t sell, a second auction is scheduled and a property can go for less than the taxes owed.

“We hardly have anything that goes to second auction,” Slagh said.

One exception is a marina on the Grand River at 120th Avenue in Crockery Township. It had been virtually wiped out by high water and ice many years ago, Slagh said. The boat slips (between 150 and 170 of them) were separate parcels, most of which had not been sold by the second auction. In that case, the county was able to consolidate the parcels. Slagh said that someone purchased the majority of them with hopes to rebuild the marina.

Slagh said the county takes over the delinquent tax collection from the municipalities each year on or about April 9 or 10.

In 2017, there were 3,675 parcels in Ottawa County with a total of approximately $6 million in delinquent taxes. In 2016, that number was 3,728 parcels and $5.9 million in delinquent taxes. The 2015 numbers were 3,991 parcels and $6.1 million in delinquent taxes.

As noted above, the county takes responsibility for those funds and makes sure all the money owed to schools or the municipalities is paid. The treasurer’s office then works to collect the delinquent funds.

So how much of that comes back?

In 2015, an estimated $4,157,000, or 68 percent of the $6.1 million owed, was paid off in the first year, Slagh said. Officials collected another $1.7 million, or 26 percent, the following year.

“We only foreclose on just a few pieces of property,” Slagh said. “It’s mostly vacant land. With our economy, we have hardly any houses.”

As of March 27, Slagh said there was potential to foreclose on 57 parcels. Some of those could be from earlier tax years. One property, delinquent from 2010 through 2015, had been held up in bankruptcy, but has now been released and the foreclosure is in process, he said.

How to avoid foreclosure

The county treasurer’s office works with property owners on payment plans, hardship exemptions and partnering with organizations, such as Step Forward, Community Action House, Financial Empowerment Center in Grand Haven, Love in Action, Salvation Army and the Veterans Administration.

In 2017, the county treasurer was able to grant hardship deferrals, which included a payment plan to 20 parcel owners, Slagh said. This kept their properties from being foreclosed. 

Contact information for all of these organizations and even more ideas are available from the county treasurer’s office.

“Education is important in helping our taxpayers,” Slagh said. “We want to be sure they are using a Principal Residence Exemption. We talk about credits that may be available to them on their taxes and how to request Property Tax Exemption from their local government unit, if appropriate.

“Several years ago, I discovered that even though we had met and exceeded all of the notification requirements, there were still property owners that never responded to us,” he continued. “Maybe they did not think the government would help them, or they worked the hours we were open so they were not easily able to get in to see us. But, for whatever reason, without some personal communication, they might likely lose their property.”

Slagh said that realization led him to make it a practice to actually go out and knock on doors in March, from 6-9 p.m., to contact homeowners to see if they could find a way to save their property from foreclosure.

“This strategy has worked, making a difference for one or two homeowners each year,” he said.

If you need assistance, or know someone who might benefit from help or a payment plan, call the county treasurer’s office at 616-994-4500. Additional information on timelines for tax foreclosure and other important property tax dates is available at www.miottawa.org/Departments/Treasurer/ . 

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