Oakland board seeks answers from treasurer on retiree's tax foreclosure for $8
Pontiac — The head of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners said Wednesday he wants county treasurer Andrew Meisner to respond to questions after a Michigan Supreme Court ruling criticized the county's foreclosure on a property owner for $8.41.
Last week in a unanimous decision, the court found the action in a recent ruling in a 2014 foreclosure to be an “unconstitutional taking without just compensation” under the state constitution.
“It appears your actions as Treasurer to foreclose on an Oakland County retiree’s property for $8.41 has exposed the county to serious risk,” said a July 21 letter to Meisner signed by board Chairman David Woodward and commissioners Mike Gingell and Helen Zack.
State law permits monies collected at public auction to be returned to county coffers. The state Supreme Court ruling is expect to have an impact on pending lawsuits involving property lawsuits throughout state and federal courts in Michigan.
The letter goes on to inform Meisner that the board of commissioners has established a Special Committee on Foreclosure Practices and Policies “to investigate and make recommendations to protect the Oakland County taxpayers.”
The letter asks Meisner, who is a Democratic candidate for the Oakland County Executive Office, for response, including documentation to several questions by Friday. The board wants to know how many properties have been foreclosed, what profits were gained at public auction, and how those funds were eventually spent.
Reached Wednesday, Meisner denied he did anything improper and added he “wasn’t surprised” by the letter or its tone.
“It was signed by people who support my opponent (in the August primary),” said Meisner, speaking of commissioners who appointed current County Executive David Coulter to finish out the term of the late L. Brooks Patterson.
“It’s the silly season and any investigation is not much more than a political witch hunt.”
Woodward countered the 20-person board has a duty to follow up on a “reckless foreclosure for profit” policy and what might be the “biggest financial risk to Oakland County ever.”
“We have formed a committee because that is our duty as commissioners,” Woodward said. “We need to know how deep this may go. Initially we were told (by the Treasurer’s Office) that it might be $30 million since 2014. But it could be upwards of $50 million on properties dating back to 2009.
“It is dramatic and comes back to a foreclosure practice which never should have occurred,” he said. “I would have paid that $8.41 myself. (Meisner) has made a colossal mistake and left it for us to clean up.”
Woodward agreed people have a responsibility to pay their taxes on time but when property is foreclosed on and goes to auction “the profits aren’t for the government to collect.”
Woodward noted how Meisner rightly suspended property tax foreclosures for the rest of the year due to COVID-19.
“But if he had discretion to do that, what was the problem here?” said Woodward, who anticipates lawsuits seeking damages from property tax foreclosure sales which never compensated the former owners.
Meisner, who has initiated several award-winning programs in his 11 years as treasurer, said he was following the law in the controversial case and “didn’t have the discretion of deciding whether or not to foreclose.”
“We have set up all kinds of programs to help property owners in trouble meet their taxes and mortgages,” said Meisner, estimating his office has prevented “tens of thousands of foreclosures.”
Meisner said the case involved an investment property for which numerous warnings had been ignored that the property was in danger of being foreclosed on.
“They never appealed any of the actions, they never claimed a hardship, they just ignored it,” Meisner said.
The Oakland County case involves property taxes that went unpaid in 2011 by Uri Rafaeli and Andre Ohanessian. Rafaeli owed $8.41 in delinquent taxes on a Southfield rental property that had grown to about $285 when Meisner foreclosed on the property in 2014. The county sold it for $24,500 and kept the excess proceeds.
Ohanessian owed $6,000 in overdue taxes to Oakland County in 2014 and his home was sold for $82,000 following tax foreclosure.
Meisner said until the law is changed there is a legal responsibility of county treasurers to maintain excess proceeds.
"This is the state law followed by all 83 counties,” Meisner said. It makes no difference who the treasurer is or what party. It's not a policy, but the law in Michigan for everyone to follow unless and until it is changed."
On the county commission's investigation of the matter, Meisner said: "The Commission knows that this is state law and not a policy of our office. In fact, Chairman Dave Woodward voted for this state law when it was before him in the Legislature, so I have to question his sincerity in complaining about it now. As always, I welcome the partnership of the Commission and hope we can get back to the business of the people soon."
Meisner said as a state representative, he worked to reform the General Property Tax Act written by the state Legislature in 1999 to reduce the interest charged on delinquent properties.
“I am working with state Rep. Robert Wittenberg on legislation to allow county treasurers to have discretion to stop a foreclosure on a property because of a small balance, something we don’t currently have.
“I look forward to working with the Legislature to change this state law in a way that works well for property owners and our local communities while being fair to the majority of property owners who pay their property taxes on time,” Meisner said.