How many times have you heard the phrase – “Well that’s just how we’ve always done it…”? It’s not an expression I enjoy hearing. And since I’ve been elected County Executive, I’ve heard that expression a lot.
Take the way we handle delinquent taxes owed on a property. The county has always mailed a bill in early July and the taxpayer has until the following June to pay their taxes in full. If they don’t pay their taxes in full, then the property could be sold at a tax sale.
But surprisingly, little to no effort is made throughout the year to collect those taxes.
Think about that for a minute. When you have an overdue bill, don’t you get several letters from your creditor reminding you to pay? You might even get a phone call to remind you that the bill is due and suggestions on how to conveniently pay the bill.
But in Wicomico County, this was rarely if ever done. Until this year. Our new Finance Director, Leslie Lewis, has been reaching out to our delinquent taxpayers and through letters and phone calls, and has had some astounding success in actually collecting that money.
One commercial property owner has finally paid all delinquent taxes for the first time in over a decade. And many county residents have been appreciative of that effort and have been paying their taxes. So to date, we have collected $3.6 million more in real estate taxes than this time last year.
So I canceled the tax sale this year. That one decision alone has saved the county a lot of taxpayer money. Now there will be those who object to this and I understand that. Some people made a lot of money off the tax sale. One local newspaper made more than $75,000 just in advertising. Lots of investors, mostly attorneys from across the Chesapeake Bay, made lots of money buying up debt that they then usually sold back to the same taxpayers with a nice hefty amount of interest attached. If any municipality wants to have their own tax sale, to recoup taxes owed their town, they are welcome to do so.
All of these delinquent properties are still for sale, by the way. Anyone can go to the County Finance Office website and see which properties are for sale and purchase them at the Finance Office downtown. For some reason, the county hadn’t offered this option, so the tax sale was the only way investors were able to buy up these properties, in many cases for way less than what they were worth.
By law, the county has to have a tax sale on delinquent properties at least every two years, so one will certainly be scheduled for next June. But until then, this county will continue to reach out to those taxpayers who are struggling financially and try and help them avoid losing their homes.
Bob Culver is the County Executive for Wicomico County.