Tax sale list declines as bills paid

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The notices have gone out, scores of water services have been shut off and now the countdown to a utility tax sale on Dec. 1 where people could eventually lose their property has begun.

The sequence of efforts to step up the collection of past due water and sewer invoices was triggered more than a year ago when the city advertised 2,700 properties for a tax sale, provoking an outcry from property owners who claimed they had no idea they had fallen so far behind on utility payments. Making it all the more difficult for many was that the unpaid balances had grown so large they couldn’t pay the bill.

The situation isn’t as dire this time. When the process started, 1,230 properties were slated for tax sale. As of Tuesday that was reduced to 640, who owe nearly $1 million in past due utility payments, according to Tax Collector Kyla Jones.

On Wednesday Daniel O’Rourke, head of the city’s water division, said there have been 378 water shutoffs since May, of which 65 remain shutoff.

“It’s working, no question it’s working,” he said of the effort to get people to address their utility bills.

As part of the program that includes multiple notifications, certified letters went out last week to those who had still not taken action. The letters inform them their property will be advertised for the Dec. 1 sale on Nov. 9. This week people lined up at the tax collector’s office to make payments or work out a plan to avoid the tax sale.

Jones’ advice to those receiving letters is not to delay and to make payments at the City Hall Annex. While there are options of paying by mail or online, Jones said paying at the counter ensures receipt.

“We’re coming down to a tight time,” she said.

Payments prior to publication of the legal ad will remove a name from the list, but she noted there’s no guaranteeing when mailed payments will be received or when online payments will be posted.

Overall, Jones said, utility payments haven’t fallen so far behind now that the process of delinquent notifications has been increased. There was a time when homeowners were allowed to fall as much as two years behind before being threatened of a tax sale.

More than a year ago, Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur was incredulous to discover the city hadn’t taken measures to collect, including the shutoff of water service. He headed up a committee to look into the matter as well as to consider ways to deal with hardship cases. Water shutoffs seemed drastic to some, but Ladouceur argued a tax sale and possible loss of property was worse.

As of last March, the city faced a total of $3.8 million in unpaid utility bills.

Shutoffs were instituted in May after the winter moratorium on the shutoff of utilities expired. The action produced a flurry of payments and the establishment of monthly payment plans to address outstanding balances.

However, Jones notes, there were a significant number of properties in foreclosure, perhaps even vacant, where the banks cared less if the water was shut off. She said a tax sale is different and with the prospect of losing properties, banks and other mortgage holders are coming forward.

Utility tax sale notices state the date of the sale but don’t include amounts due. Jones explained amounts due change regularly and to have included them would have caused confusion.

The letter makes the consequences of a tax sale clear, stating that should a property be sold at tax sale, the owner has one year in which to redeem it from the buyer for the amount paid in unpaid taxes or utilities, plus a 10 percent penalty.

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