You might think that the Hydra – the multi-headed beast that grows two or more heads every time you cut one off – is limited to Greek mythology, but the Guilford County Tax Department and the county’s legal department know that, now, in 2016, Guilford County is battling its own form of an unconquerable Hydra – a foreclosures backlog that keeps growing no matter what they throw at it.
The Guilford County Tax Department has 947 foreclosures currently in active status – a backlog the county has been trying to bring down for years. However, what that official number doesn’t reflect is that there are another 500 brand new foreclosure cases that haven’t been put into the foreclosure pipeline because it’s already so clogged. Those new cases are not reflected on the county’s foreclosure website that the Tax Department set up earlier this year to provide information on the status of those cases the county has in progress.
That means the county’s true number of foreclosures it has to deal with is actually nearly 50 percent larger than the official data currently reflects. This is at a time when Guilford County has been throwing extra money and staff at the problem for almost a year in its attempt to reduce the backlog.
The 947 foreclosures the county has made public have an average delinquency of seven years, while the new ones average four years in arrears. In counties where there’s little to no backlog, the average delinquency can be under two years. Counties in North Carolina have 10 years to use the legal means at their disposal to collect on a property tax debt.
Due to the increasing foreclosure backlog, Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis is going back to the Board of Commissioners and asking for yet more help. The tax director said this week that he’s going to ask the commissioners to approve hiring an outside firm to handle hundreds of the county’s foreclosures. One interesting thing is that the whole reason the county added a foreclosure specialist position to the county attorneys office was so it wouldn’t have to outsource those duties.
In the 2015-2016 budget, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners funded the new position at a cost of nearly $200,000 to address the backlog. It filled the position with Chief Deputy County Attorney Matt Mason. About $112,000 of that cost is Mason’s salary. Roughly $48,000 of that was already in the Tax Department’s regular budget and was moved over to the county attorney’s budget – meaning that the new money budgeted was about $148,000. According to Guilford County Budget Director Michael Halford, that increase in spending also included “postage, remaining costs of the contract with the outside attorney for cases in progress, part-time help during the transition, computer equipment, required advertising and court costs, etc.”
That division of the county’s legal office was set up last fall, but now the Tax Department is requesting to outsource hundreds of foreclosure cases to an outside legal firm. The commissioners are expected to approve that request so, going forward, Guilford County will not only have an in-house attorney handling foreclosures but will also be outsourcing the job with the chosen firm receiving about $850 per case they process. The county attorney’s position was created to focus entirely on foreclosure cases because that strategy was said to be preferable and more cost effective than outsourcing the cases to outside firms.
Chavis admits that the tenacity and size of this problem has caught the department off guard. He said that, on average, it takes about eight to 18 months to process a foreclosure case, so the county is only now starting to see the benefits of its in-house operations. He said it’s now clear that the problem is bigger than anticipated.
“When we jumped in to it, we just saw how monumental this was – Matt has acknowledged that; we have acknowledged that,” Chavis said.
Chavis also said he had spoken with Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips and conveyed to him the need for the county to hire the outside firm based on the overwhelming number of foreclosure cases, both in the pipeline and being held on the sidelines. He said that, even with the hiring of an outside firm, it will take years to get caught up.
Chavis said that with the backlog increasing, it’s imperative that Guilford County seek outside help.
“We’ve got to do this,” he said,
He said Mason couldn’t address this issue alone.
“He needs some help,” Chavis said.
Chavis added that, for whatever reason, in the past, before he arrived, Guilford County simply did not use foreclosures as a collection method to any large extent.
“When you’ve let things drift as long as we have, you’ve got to do something,” he said.
Meanwhile, foreclosure cases continue to pile up. Chavis said that, as new tax bills go unpaid, his staff works through the rolls and sees which property owners should be foreclosed on, usually based on a non-payment of taxes for four or five years. He said that the days of not using foreclosure as a collection method are over.
“It’s a new day,” he said.
Chavis said he believes that, once the backlog has been addressed, Guilford County can handle the cases in house.
Currently, the county has over $9.8 million in delinquent property taxes going back to 2006. For 2015, Guilford County property owners owe $3.8 million in back taxes. They owe $1.9 million for 2014 and $1.3 million for 2013. For each of the other years in the past decade, property owners owe less than $1 million, with the lowest amount owed being for 2006, a year for which taxpayers still owe $88,400.
Chavis said there are several reasons to collect those taxes.
“It’s not just the money,” Chavis said. “You want to be fair to the other property owners that have paid their taxes. You want people to pay their fair share.”
Other counties have also been using foreclosures more often to get their tax revenues up.
Forsyth County Tax Administrator John Burgiss said that in 2011, when his predecessor was the tax director, that county launched an aggressive effort. Like Chavis, Burgess said fairness was the primary reason his county was focused on collecting those back taxes through any means at its disposal. He said a lot of people have a great deal of trouble paying their tax bill each year, yet they manage to come up with the money – and this is a question of being fair to those people as well as other taxpayers.
Burgiss said that, before 2011, Forsyth County would use every other means at its disposal – such as garnishing wages or rent – but he said it did not have a strong foreclosure initiative. One change that makes that easier, he said, is that now there are legal firms that specialize in aiding governments with the foreclosure collection process. He said his county has now hired a firm to handle many of its foreclosure cases.
“I think the difference is that there are some firms who specialize in this now,” he said. “They can accurately handle large volumes of foreclosures. Over time, through that process, we’ve been able to bring down the total dollars uncollected and the number of years back taxes were due.”
Burgiss said that, in Forsyth County, the cost of the foreclosure process when handled by the outside firm hinges on a number of factors.
“It varies depending on the amount of research and other things,” he said.
He added that the money from the property sale is held by the courts and then creditors get in line for it. There is a hierarchy and usually tax departments are one of the first creditors paid.
He said that now his county is caught up on foreclosures for the most part and handles them in a steady stream as new delinquencies come up.
“We average about 400 to 600 a year,” he said, and he pointed out that Guilford County has about a third more parcels on the tax rolls than Forsyth County.
That’s the place where Guilford County officials want this county to be.
Phillips said this is certainly an issue Guilford County should address.
“In all fairness to most of our citizens who pay taxes on time, they deserve to have taxes collected from others,” Phillips said.
He said he was surprised to learn earlier this year that Mason was also handling other duties for the county attorney’s office, since the new position was established with the idea that it would be dedicated to foreclosures. He said hiring an outside firm should help.
“It’s likely to be in the next two or three meetings, and I foresee the majority of our board approving it,” Phillips said. “It would not require any county tax dollars.”
The fees charged by the firm will be taken from the proceeds of the property sale in cases where that property is foreclosed on and charged to the taxpayer if he or she pays up once foreclosure proceedings have begun.