The Harford County government put tax liens on 620 properties up for sale at its annual delinquent payment auction Monday, recouping $828,376.97 on 597 accounts, according to county officials.
The total value of the 620 delinquent tax accounts was $1,000,838.37, county Treasurer Robert Sandlass said. There were 419 properties with unpaid taxes, totaling $1,075,885.93, up for sale last year — 404 were sold, netting $934,727.38.
The county is not selling the properties themselves, but just the liens on unpaid property taxes. They are put up for auction each year, and buyers can bid up to 300 percent of the assessed value of the property, according to Sandlass.
The number of properties increased this year, after several years of decreases.
Many of the properties with taxes in arrears were “open,” or undeveloped lots that are grouped together in larger tracts. That means less tax is owed on an open lot, compared to a lot with a structure built on it, hence more properties are involved, but the total dollar value is lower than in prior years, according to Sandlass.
The auction was conducted online late Monday morning and monitored by Sandlass, Rachel Holmes, chief of revenue collections, Paula Anis, assistant supervisor of revenue collections, and attorney Alan Getz, who serves as outside counsel for the treasury department.
The four gathered in the conference room adjacent to the Department of the Treasury offices in the county administration building in Bel Air.
There were 36 qualified bidders; 14 of them were winning bidders, according to statistics provided by Sandlass.
The buyer of the tax lien has up to two years to purchase the property, if desired, but they must do it through the judicial and foreclosure process, he said.
Taxpayers can redeem those liens purchased at auction during that period, if they pay the taxes owed, along with any outstanding fees and interest, “and legal fees, if it comes to that,” Sandlass said. People have to pay the current year’s taxes, too, when making redemption payments, he said.
The redemption payments are made through the treasury department, rather than directly to the lien holder. That creates more administrative work for the department, but it helps protect the taxpayers and auction lien buyers from fraud, according to Sandlass and his staff.
“Ultimately, that’s who we’re here for, is our taxpayer,” Anis said.
Getz, a Bel Air attorney, took part in his 49th annual tax sale Monday. He recalled when, decades ago, the county’s population was small enough that all property taxes were paid, or there were so few delinquent accounts that treasury staff could follow up on them with phone calls or visits to the local courthouse.
“Now that’s impossible because this county has grown,” Getz said.
He said he attended law school in Baltimore at night, and “the first red light I saw was in Overlea.”
Today the county has more than 252,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 estimate.
The annual tax sales are different, too.
Before the county switched to the electronic bidding process more than a decade ago, sales were originally held on the front steps of the Circuit Courthouse in Bel Air, with several auctioneers conducting the bidding. Later, the sales were moved inside to a conference room at the county administrative center, where bidders still showed up in person to make their offers.
The present-day treasury department handles hundreds of delinquent tax accounts each year, but staff still work with people who have unpaid taxes or anticipate they might not be able to pay their taxes in time.
Property tax bills are sent out July 1, when the fiscal year starts, and they can be paid in full or in two parts, with one part due Sept. 30 and the final part due Dec. 31. Unpaid taxes accrue interest and penalties if not paid by Dec. 31.
“Government does require taxes in order to operate, for us to do all the things that we do,” Sandlass said, noting services such as schools, law enforcement and libraries provided by the local government.
Anybody who has to pay off overdue taxes or expects they might not be able to pay their taxes in time should call the treasury department at 410-638-3269 for assistance.
“We train our staff to be sensitive to other people’s needs,” Anis said.
Staff can tell taxpayers about credits and programs that are available to help them. They can also refer them to other agencies that can help such as the county’s Office on Aging or Harford County Housing & Community Development, Holmes said.
“We know that there are hardships out there, everybody faces it,” Anis said.