CANTON – Proposed rules that will make it harder for property owners to keep their land or home if they owe St. Lawrence County back taxes moved another step forward Monday.
During their full Legislature meeting, lawmakers unanimously approved two resolutions and set 6:50 p.m. May 4 for a public hearing on a proposed local law that changes the rules for the county’s annual property tax auction.
The law would take effect Jan. 1 and would prohibit anyone who is delinquent in property taxes from bidding at the county’s tax-sale auction.
Each fall, the county auctions off more than 100 properties that were foreclosed upon for unpaid taxes. Under the existing law, owners have until 5 p.m. the day before the auction to pay all back taxes, along with any fees, interest or penalties. They also can bid on their own property during the auction.
“The former owner, and any other person who may be acting as an agent of the former owner, whether disclosed or undisclosed, is strictly prohibited from bidding at the auction,” the new law states. “The term delinquent is defined as prior year tax delinquency.”
Legislature Chairman Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, said the law needs to be tightened because it has resulted in some cases where homeowners who owed back taxes won back their homes at the annual auction, but never paid their full bid price.
In one case, he said, a homeowner declared bankruptcy before the auction, which forced the county to pull the property from the tax sale. The following year the person was the high bidder at the auction, paid the required down payment for the home, but never paid the balance of the price.
“The track record for some of these people is abysmal,” Mr. Lightfoot said. “We’re trying to tighten up the procedure to the point where taxpayers are not getting scammed every time you turn around.”
County legislators passed a second resolution that authorizes county officials to begin legal action against people occupying county-owned property acquired through tax foreclosure upon approval of the county attorney and upon notice to the Board of Legislators.
According to the proposed law, during the foreclosure process, the county could apply to a court to gain “temporary incidence of ownership,” for any properties that may have environmental contamination. This would grant the county the legal authority to enter the property to conduct an environmental investigation to determine the nature and extent of any contamination and the estimated cost of cleanup.
The cleanup cost, including investigation, may be charged to the owner and included on the tax assessment roll, the law states.