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Wayne County is spending up to $18.6 million warning property owners they face tax foreclosure, but lawsuits allege the office is doing such a poor job that some owners aren’t aware they’ve lost homes until it’s too late.

The county foreclosed on Bernice and Ron King’s Westland home last year over a $3,000 unpaid tax bill. The couple said they didn’t realize they were in danger of losing their home until days before it was sold at auction, after a neighbor saw a man taking pictures in the driveway.

They’ve fought their foreclosure in court, arguing they didn’t get foreclosure notices and were making payments. Now, the couple faces possible eviction from the winning auction bidder.

“I don’t want to lose my home,” said Ron King, 57, whose lawsuit is before the Michigan Court of Appeals. “We are good people. We work every day.”

“I am going to lose my home that is paid for, for $3,000. It’s crazy. I am going nuts.”

The Wayne County treasurer’s office has processed more than 100,000 foreclosures in the last decade. State law requires officials to reach out to anyone with possible interest in the properties when it is headed to foreclosure — through first class and certified letters, newspaper notices and personal property visits, including posted notices if no one is home.

A handful of lawsuits contend those notifications don’t always happen: Certified letters are listed “in transit” more than two years after being mailed, while owners allege they never got a foreclosure notice from the company tasked with personally visiting properties.

Along with the Kings, 18 families have sued Wayne County and several suburbs in federal court, alleging the foreclosures are illegal because the owners didn’t receive notices and believed they had more time to pay taxes and save their properties. All face possible eviction.

The county, which wouldn’t comment directly on the Kings’ or other lawsuits because they are pending, has said in court filings it followed the law.

The two companies that handle most of the notifications — Wolverine Solutions of Detroit and Rancilio & Associates of Clinton Township — have four-year contracts that end this fall. Wolverine would make up to $9.5 million over the length of its contract, Rancilio, $9.1 million.

The Detroit News obtained records of certified mailings through the Freedom of Information Act and sampled 1,000 of the 333,000 sent by Wolverine Solutions in late 2014.

The News found more than half are still listed in the U.S. post office’s tracking system as “in transit.”

The limbo status prompted a rebuke from Wayne County Circuit Judge Robert Colombo Jr., who presides over the tax foreclosure cases.

‘It was a lot worse’

“I am so tired of reading the treasurer’s record that says ‘delivery information pending,’ ” Colombo told county officials in court in October while reviewing the Kings’ case. “There’s a big problem here with the post office. The treasurer paying for certified mail. Why do we see this notation so often?”

Chief Deputy Treasurer Eric Sabree acknowledged problems with certified mail, saying the office hasn’t always received proof from the post office that a person signed for the letter or that delivery was attempted.

Even so, Sabree said he has no evidence to believe that the post office didn’t try to deliver the certified letters. The county also makes several other attempts to notify delinquent owners, he said.

About 7 percent of the 213,000 certified letters mailed in late 2015 lacked delivery confirmation. That’s an improvement from 2014, Sabree said, although he couldn’t provide numbers for that year.

Sabree said the county plans to send additional mailings, adding that representatives from the Treasurer’s Office, the post office and Wolverine have been meeting and working on ways to improve the system.

“It was a lot worse,” Sabree said. “Even though there’s been great improvement, it is still unacceptable. We aren’t getting our money’s worth.”

“We don’t have control of delivery. The post office has a monopoly.”

A lawyer for Wolverine said the company did its job. A spokeswoman for the U.S Postal Service didn’t respond to questions about the number of foreclosure certified letters “in transit” but acknowledged officials have met with the county to improve service.

“The incidents cited are not indicative of the level of service the Postal Service endeavors to provide,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Najduch wrote in an email.

Former Chief Deputy Treasurer David Szymanski, who retired last year, said foreclosure shouldn’t be a surprise to those who haven’t paid their taxes. Generally, foreclosure is triggered after taxes aren’t paid for three years.

“If you are a homeowner, you are assumed to know taxes have to be paid, and if you don’t send the check in, the taxes need to be paid,” said Szymanski, who is now the treasurer for the city of Detroit.

The debate comes as a three-member panel in Wayne County is expected Monday to appoint an interim treasurer to serve until June 2017. The opening came after longtime treasurer Raymond J. Wojtowicz retired in December and his successor, Richard Hathaway, abruptly announced his resignation in March.

Sabree is among eight candidates for the post.

Personal visits

In the lawsuits, some owners allege that they never got the postings from Rancilio & Associates, which the county contracts to make personal visits to each property headed to foreclosure.

The Kings’ lawyer, Andrew Strahan, said the couple’s notice was stuck to the door with painter’s tape and likely blew away. Strahan said he can tell from the photo Rancilio took of the Kings’ posting that they used the distinctive blue painters tape.

In the federal lawsuit, another local attorney, Tarek Bayoun, said his clients also didn’t get certified letters or postings. And in the wake of the notification allegations, one company, California-based First American Title Insurance, moved to temporarily refuse to insure deeds on tax-foreclosed homes in Wayne County this year.

Vincent Hoyumpa, an attorney for Rancilio, said the company does a good job.

Colombo dismissed the Kings’ case, even though he expressed concern over the number of certified notices, including the Kings’, that were listed as “in transit” by the county. The judge found that there was evidence the homeowners were being notified, either through the mail, by Rancilio, which offered photos of its posting on the door, and advertisements placed in the Detroit Legal News.

The Kings say they didn’t know the Legal News existed and that they didn’t get any other notice from the county of the foreclosure.

The Kings said they knew they owed $3,000 in back taxes from 2012. They fell behind while getting out of a subprime mortgage that more than doubled their monthly payments.

They paid their delinquent 2010 and 2011 taxes through a payment plan and called and left a message on a county hotline in March 2015 to start a new one. Ron King had followed those same procedures before entering into a plan the previous year.

When no one called back, the Kings sent three monthly payments to the treasurer. The couple said they thought they were OK because their money orders weren’t sent back and they didn’t get any foreclosure notices.

They also made regular payments for 2013 and 2014 taxes, because they said a county staffer had told them to do so or they would face foreclosure.

That wasn’t true, their lawyer Strahan said. The couple could have used those funds to pay the 2012 taxes and avoid foreclosure.

When neighbors told the Kings about the man in their driveway in September 2015, they discovered they were only days away from the auction. They said they went to the treasurer’s office with a check for $4,000, but county officials told them they were too late.

The county argues the Kings never came to the treasurer’s office to initiate a payment plan for the 2012 taxes. And officials say the county followed the law and tried to notify the Kings they were headed to auction. The home was sold for $40,000 to a Brighton man.

The Michigan Court of Appeals recently dismissed the Kings’ appeal of Colombo’s ruling, but they want the court to reconsider.

Bernice King, 57, has been a waitress for more than 30 years. Ron King has worked as a precision grinder at a machine shop for nearly 40 years. They bought the home from Bernice’s mom in 1994 and are now stocking up on boxes in their garage in case their court challenge fails.

“I am losing my home over this stuff and I have always done my part,” Ron King said. “I don’t understand why. Whether it is the fault of the Wayne County Treasurer’s office or the post office but I am losing my home over this that I have worked my whole life for and that I have paid for.”

cmacdonald@detroitnews.com

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