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Harford County treasurer Robert Sandlass explains the annual Harford tax lien sale. (Bryna Zumer and Dan Griffin, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford County held its annual tax lien sale Monday morning, putting up for bid 486 tax-delinquent properties in an online auction that brought in $988,404.46.

The number of properties was down from 619 properties in last year's sale, which may be a good sign in terms of residents and investment property owners paying their property taxes.

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Monday's winning bidders pay off county taxes and any penalties owed and then have a lien against the property until the owner either pays them back, plus redemption interest at a rate set by the county, or the lien holder forecloses and, subject to court approval, takes ownership of the property.

The tax sale lien certificates are good for two years. The redemption rate the purchaser can charge the property owner is 12 percent per annum, and that interest begins to accrue the day the tax certificate is issued.

Most tax liens are purchased by individuals or groups as investments in order to receive the redemption interest, rather than to actually get ownership of the properties involved.

County Treasurer Robert Sandlass, who came on board this year at the start of County Executive Barry Glassman's administration, said his office wants to work with property owners to make sure their parcels do not end up in the tax sale in the first place and aren't later lost to foreclosure because the owners can't pay off the lien certificate.

"These are the properties that have been delinquent in their taxes, many for several years, not just one," Sandlass said. "This isn't an ideal situation or anything like that, so, really, what we want to do is work with the account holders so it doesn't come to this point."

He said individuals have up to four months to get their properties back following the sale before they would have to face a possible court action by the lien purchaser.

"There's still time to come out there," Sandlass said about the properties in the sale. "It doesn't mean that someone is moving into your house tomorrow. It's just the start of the process, in many ways."

"After the four months is when, oftentimes, the [tax lien buyers] will come in with judicial proceedings and start moving toward foreclosures and things like that," he said.

Bidders had to pre-register to take part in Monday's sale, which was done in three batches and overseen by county treasury employees and Bel Air attorney Alan Getz, who has been running the tax sale for the county for more than four decades.

There were 39 registered bidders, who participated in the online auction through a third party, RealAuctions.com.

Bidding on each property starts at the amount of taxes owed, plus any interest and penalties. Taxes are due each year on Sept. 30, after which the county charges a 1.5 percent per month penalty.

The morning began well, as far as the county's prospects for recouping lost revenue. The first batch had 142 items and only eight were not bid on, Rachel Holmes, chief of the bureau of revenue collections, said.

"That is not bad at all," she observed as the bidding closed.

The county sold 93 percent of the properties, or 459, a percentage slightly lower than last year's 96.4 percent. There were 27 properties unsold when the auction ended, up from 13 last year.

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The total amount bid - $988,404.40 - was slightly higher than the $972,000.22 the county received last year.

Sandlass said the county wants more people to take advantage of state and county programs that can reduce their taxes or help them work out financial problems.

"I don't think the process of this is we're looking for a certain dollar amount," he said. "We understand this is a tough situation for a lot of people, and that's why we certainly want to work with individuals."

"If you find yourself in a situation where you're not up to date on your taxes, please reach out. There are programs available," he said.

People are often reluctant to reach out, perhaps out of personal pride, he said.

"That's really not a good idea," Sandlass said, adding the county is very willing to work with property owners.

The county's tax sale has been held online since 2011, taking away the traditional auction atmosphere that required bidders to come to the County Council chambers or to the front steps of the Circuit Courthouse to compete for properties, with several professional auctioneers taking turns selling off the properties.

"It's a much different process than it was years ago when people would be on the courthouse steps and it would be a little bit more of the traditional auction feel," Sandlass said.

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