Back-tax claims tax patience of Grant County's tax man

Lane Burton

CANYON CITY - Delinquent property taxes cropped up as an issue in the recall petition drive launched this summer, much to Grant County Assessor Lane Burton's dismay.

He said his office's performance on back taxes is sound, and shouldn't be an issue for County Judge Mark Webb, the target of the recall.

"I feel we're doing a good job and doing what we can," Burton said. "I think facts are facts - let the public see them and then decide."

Burton is elected as assessor, but is appointed by the County Court as the tax collector for the county.

A group called the Committee for Responsible Government in Grant County began circulating petitions to recall the judge this month. The petitions list about a dozen complaints about the judge, including "not encouraging the collection of over one million dollars in unpaid property taxes."

Burton responded recently that Webb has shown an interest in the county's tax collection.

"Mark Webb has asked me, 'Are you doing everything you can?' He never told me not to pursue back taxes," Burton said.

The county's most recent summary filed with the state lists $1.04 million in past due real property taxes for all tax years. However, Burton said about half of that is from the most recent tax billing, and only a small portion of the rest dates back far enough to be subject to foreclosure, if the county sought that option. With rare exceptions, Burton has opted to send late notices and work with taxpayers to catch up their accounts - at 16 percent interest, he notes.

Asked to describe the county's procedures, Burton said his office billed out $7.1 million in property taxes for 2008-09. The money supports 27 taxing districts in the county.

While 73.1 percent of the tax accounts are paid in full by the Nov. 15 due date, others opt to pay in thirds - which is legal but costs them a 3 percent discount - and still others fail to pay at all.

For the last tax year, 2008-09, there's a little over $500,000 still owed, Burton said.

"For whatever reason, some folks have not paid," he said.

The county sends late notices to those accounts, but state law says the county can't initiate foreclosure proceedings until three years past the date the account becomes delinquent - in effect the fourth year since the assessment and billing.

To foreclose, Burton could turn over delinquent accounts to the district attorney to handle the legal case. However, Burton said the district attorneys in recent years have been too busy to take on the additional work - a contention confirmed by current DA Ryan Joslin.

"They're like everyone else," Burton said. "They don't have enough staff and time."

According to ODOR, even after county gets a judgment for foreclosure, state law gives the property owner a two-year redemption period. In effect, it could be six years between the initial billing and payment through foreclosure.

Burton said most Grant County accounts are paid off within six years anyway. The county currently has about $125,000 in taxes owing that are past due six or more years. However, that sum includes about $68,000 in personal property taxes - construction equipment and the like, he said.

The balance is about $57,000.

That's a far cry from the million dollars he's hearing in the community.

"Even though we're not foreclosing, it's not that bad," he said.

The properties, Burton said, include six that are in bankruptcy and another three that are under senior deferral with any resolution delayed until the property changes hands.

Burton noted that state law allows the county 16 percent interest on the delinquent taxes.

"If the property gets sold, we get 16 percent on all those years of back taxes," Burton said.

The interest, like the tax itself, is divided among the taxing districts.

Burton said he really has only has a couple of accounts that really concern him.

One of the delinquent tax payers is a former serviceman who is eligible for a deferment based in his military service. Burton said he's mailed the man information on the deferment, which would halt the accrual of interest penalties, but "he hasn't taken advantage of that."

Perhaps the most delinquent account Burton has seen involved a hillside property in Canyon City. The property taxes went unpaid from 1985 to 2005, including about 10 years when the property was tied up by bankruptcy. Eventually, the man sold the property and the taxes were paid in the deal.

County records show the taxes came to $6,546.77 plus interest of $10,648.06 - for a total of $17,194.83.

Another case involved a doctor in Hawaii whose 80 acres in north Grant County had tax problems dating back to 1993. Although a three-year balance remains, the owner eventually caught up on most of the bill. Burton said the county recouped $4,183.40 in back taxes, plus $5,391.02 in interest.

The ODOR website has a county comparison chart listing Grant County at the bottom of the heap for percent of property tax collection, at 90.8 percent for the most recent year shown, 2006-07.

However, the county's own figures put it in the middle of the pack at about 93 percent, and state officials have said it's OK to use the county's number.

Derrick Gaspirini, ODOR spokesman, said the discrepancy "has multiple possible explanations." The number of accounts earning the discount could be one factor, as well as appeal outcomes, he said.

Burton said that to be prudent, he advises local tax districts to budget for 8 to 10 percent in uncollected taxes. State revenue officials said that's a reasonable figure for local taxing districts, which are required to make a good-faith estimate for their budgets.

Although Grant County doesn't have a history of foreclosing for back taxes, Burton isn't suggesting people ignore their property tax bills.

"Eventually, they'll have to pay 16 percent interest," he said.

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