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February 7, 2013

Property tax bills delayed

MERCER COUNTY — If you bought or sold property in Mercer County in the past year, you might have a problem with your property tax bill.

Heavier-than-usual demands on the time and attention of county employees in the tax collector’s office have put the updating of records about eight months behind, warned Michael Deforest, director of the department of revenue.

That lag likely means that those who bought or sold property may receive outdated tax bills in March. Either new owners won’t receive a tax notice or former owners might get one for property they no longer own, he said.

He told county commissioners Wednesday that even though the tax office may be behind in sending out bills for newly purchased property, owners are still responsible for paying the taxes and if they don’t, will still face penalties.

Commissioner Chairman John Lechner said he didn’t think it was right to penalize property owners if it was the county’s fault. He wants to sit down with Deforest and find a solution.

“It’s our responsibility and this is something we need to get corrected,” he said.

Lechner asked whether hiring a temporary worker would help, but Deforest said no, because it takes an extended period of time to get employees trained in the office practices.

Deforest said a state law that has been “tested in court, appealed and been upheld” places the responsibility on the property owner to pay the taxes, regardless of receiving a notice. He plans to release more detailed information closer to March, explaining what property owners with questions should do, along with a list of tax due dates.

The problem, Deforest said, is that demand for tax lien information has tripled in the last year, particularly with companies researching properties for oil and gas leases and with banking institutions whose lending policies have tightened. That increase, along with staffing cuts, means that the nine employees aren’t able to keep up with the workload, he said.

“It isn’t that anybody is slouching. It’s just that the volume of people requesting information has gotten so high that people aren’t at their desks to get other work done. I also want to be clear that this has nothing to do with the recorder’s office, which is doing everything exactly as it should,” he said.

“The hold-up is due to a lot of factors. The interest from those oil and gas leases is people coming in to see exactly how much land people own. They need a copy of the property record card that shows the size of the land and the house and any outbuildings. With the tightening of the standards to get a mortgage, the banks want to see that homes were built with the proper permits. They go through this process before they give a loan, looking for assurances to protect their investment. Credit card companies call wanting to verify that people own property. We get all manner of telephone calls as well,” he said.

Deforest gave as an example the increase in the number of tax lien certificates his office has processed the last couple of years. “In 2011 we did 2,620 certificates, charging $5 a certificate, and generated $13,100. In 2012, we did 6,917, generating $34,595.” State law allows a maximum charge of $5.

He has been working in the tax office for 34 years and has been the director for 24 years and said the best the office has ever been was about three months behind the recorder’s office. And at one time, he said, probably about 20 years ago, the office was “three to four years behind.”

While he said he is working on “solutions” to the backlog, Deforest said a computer program is about 12 to 18 months away that will provide a searchable database, which he hopes will eliminate some of the walk-in traffic.

He also said he foresees the “mad rush” of oil and gas lease business winding down and thinks this problem will be corrected in the next year or so.

Most municipalities mail the tax bills for county, school and municipal taxes on March 1, but there are some smaller townships that combine all three and mail them in the summer, he said.

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