Letter: County treasurers help fight foreclosure

The Detroit News
"By collecting delinquent property taxes, county treasurers are protecting the majority of taxpayers who pay their fair share of taxes, on time," Meisner writes.

County treasurers in Michigan are passionate about preventing foreclosure because it keeps families in their homes, protects property rights and property values, and stabilizes neighborhoods. However, we don’t support privatizing the gains and socializing the losses associated with tax foreclosure.

Many treasurers go above and beyond the requirements of Michigan’s General Property Tax Act to notify taxpayers of their outstanding tax bill and to offer innovative solutions to prevent foreclosure.

For instance, in Oakland County we’ve met with over 20,000 taxpayers to develop payment plans, refer families to agencies for help across many areas of need, and even started an entrepreneurial boot camp for finances to help taxpayers with small businesses to succeed.

Additional foreclosure prevention efforts in Oakland County also include:

• Personal visits by the treasurer to any owner-occupied homes

• First-class mail and recorded phone messages

• Thousands of Taxpayer Assistance Meetings each year

• Using social media to reach taxpayers

• Notifying all interested parties of delinquencies, and

• Checking various databases if any mail is returned

Treasurers make these efforts to prevent foreclosure because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s the responsible thing to do. By collecting delinquent property taxes, county treasurers are protecting the majority of taxpayers who pay their fair share of taxes, on time. In Oakland County, that’s 97 percent of taxpayers. Of the remaining 3 percent, many are real estate investors—often from out-of-state or other countries—who professionally engage in the risky business of real estate.

The Rafaeli case highlighted in a recent Detroit News editorial ("End law that allows counties to steal property," Dec. 16) was of the latter category: an out-of-state landlord who didn’t pay his taxes on time like everyone else is required to do. When property owners skip out on paying their taxes it means less money for local schools, libraries and roads—shifting the burden to responsible homeowners and taxpayers.

As stewards of taxpayer dollars, treasurers must hold these bad actors accountable. In Oakland County, maintaining our AAA bond rating depends on it. State law requires treasurers to sell foreclosed properties at auction and returns net proceeds to the county to be used to tackle blight in neighborhoods, clean up properties, and cover losses on properties that don’t sell for enough money to cover the delinquent taxes.

Because we’re often dealing with abandoned, blighted, and challenged properties at auction, it’s typical that a property sells for less than the taxes owed. When we are able to sell properties for more than the taxes due, we ensure that innocent Oakland County taxpayers who have paid on time don’t get stuck picking up the tab for those who don’t.

The Detroit News editorial misses the mark on a case where an out-of-state landlord failed to pay his fair share of taxes despite being sent numerous notices via mail, personal visits to the property, and publishing in the local newspaper. The editorial disregards that the purpose of the Michigan General Property Tax Act (P.A. 123), enacted in 1999 with broad bipartisan support, is to return tax-reverted properties to productive use so they don’t become a drain on neighborhoods or property values. Returning excess proceeds to delinquent taxpayers, as suggested by the editorial, incentivizes bad behavior by forcing county treasurers to act as unpaid and unlicensed Realtors for people who haven’t paid their bills.

That’s not the role of government. The Michigan Association of County Treasurers has been a leading voice in reforming the law to better serve our constituents, including updating the act to allow for reduced interest payment plans to allow families to stay in their homes.

It’s my responsibility to side with the 97 percent of taxpayers who pay their taxes on time and those families facing a genuine hardship, not a sophisticated out-of-state real estate investor who made a costly mistake and now wants a taxpayer bailout.

Andy Meisner, Oakland County treasurer

Co-chair, Michigan Association of County Treasurers Legislative Committee