At a Friday, July 15 meeting of the Guilford County Tax Committee, Tax Director Ben Chavis told the group that the county is gonna need a bigger boat.
Actually, that’s what actor Roy Scheider said in Jaws after his character’s first glimpse of the shark – but Chavis’ message to the Tax Committee regarding the overwhelming number of foreclosures and the desperate need for help was essentially the same: The problem is much bigger than what the county currently has the capacity to deal with.
Guilford County has 930 properties in the foreclosure process and Chavis said that 500 more may get “piled on” as a result of the tax collection fiscal year that ended on June 30. He said that, unless the county hired legal help to deal with the backlog, it’s only going to get worse.
The surprising thing is that the message comes right on the heels of the commissioners giving Chavis and his department a bigger boat last year: The board added a new position to the county’s legal office that was devoted entirely to foreclosures and hired former Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Attorney Matt Mason to address the backlog.
“We’ve created a mountain here for ourselves,” Chavis told the committee. “When I came, we really did not have much of a foreclosure program. We’ve got the program up and running, but what do we do now?”
He said that, after setting up the in-house foreclosure office, it’s obvious that one attorney won’t be able to deal with the tremendous backlog of cases.
“We’re just so far behind,” he said. “This mountain is so huge that we’ve got to get Matt some help so he’s in a viable condition.”
At the July 15 Tax Committee meeting, Chavis said that, due to the overwhelming number of foreclosures, and the giant backlog, Guilford County would either need to create more positions to address the issue or hire outside help – something the county intended to avoid when it created the new position and hired Mason to focus on foreclosures.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips attended the committee meeting held in the manager’s conference room of the Old Guilford County Court House, as did Commissioner Kay Cashion, County Manager Marty Lawing, County Attorney Mark Payne and other county staff.
At the meeting, Chavis summarized the most recent year of tax collection. He told the group that the tax collection rate in Guilford County for 2015-2016 was as high as it’s been in 15 years – over 99 percent– but that still left a good amount in arrears.
“We were left with a balance as far as real estate of $2.9 million,” Chavis said of the current tax debt. “Add that to previous years and we’re at $6.2 million overall.”
That second number is unpaid property tax bills that go back 10 years, the amount of time the county has a legal means to collect those debts. He said most of the new debt would be collected in the normal course of business, but he added that some would go into the foreclosure pipeline. He also said that, as of Jan. 1 of this year, Guilford County had 1,040 parcels in the foreclosure process, which it had managed to bring down to 930 in the first half of 2016. Those are the cases that have been handed by the Tax Department to attorneys for collection.
“We’re in a mode right now where everything is moving in house,” Chavis said.
There are now only about a half-dozen cases being handled by an outside attorney, but the new request could change that in a big way. Chavis said the law firm he has in mind for the job could take on 600 foreclosure cases a year for a flat fee of $750 per foreclosure, which, he added, was much lower than the previous price tag of $2,100 that one firm charged before the county put Mason on the job.
Chavis said Mason was doing good work but clearly needed help if the county was to bring the backlog down in a significant way. He said the effort has produced $176,500 in revenue in the past fiscal year, and he pointed out that Mason’s shop only got up and running in October.
Cashion said that sounded like a “fair return” for the program at this point.
Payne also made the pitch for more help.
“Right now it’s just too much of a caseload,” he said. “You’d have to throw a lot of attorney’s and paralegals at it to really knock it down.”
Payne said that, if Guilford County outsourced the work, the arrangement with outside counsel would be structured in a different way than it has been in the past.
In addition to the discussion over the best way to address the backlog, Phillips expressed his concern as to how the county decides which cases to go after first.
Payne said several factors go into the decision to proceed with the final steps of foreclosure after that property is in the pipeline.
“The prioritization is one of the things we talk a lot about,” he said.
Payne said Mason is overseeing a “whole new process and procedure” that Guilford County has been implementing, and said Mason and the county’s legal office do an evaluation of every property.
He said the county often goes after high-value property where the county will in all likelihood get the tax money owed. He said that consideration will move a property up on the foreclosure list.
“The factors start with how overdue they are, because you don’t want any of them to go past a few years,” he said. “If you’re upside down on it, then it’s a lower priority because your chances of getting a payment are reduced. You want to get the low-hanging fruit first.”
Payne said one consideration is whether property would sell at auction. If not, his office is less likely to foreclose because that might mean that taking over the property would cost the county money. The county might have to put money into the house to make it marketable or pay to tear it down.
“There’s no real urgency in getting something that may cost us money into the system,” Payne said.
Payne also said it made sense to go after the ones that have “the most bang” for the effort, and he added that in some cases foreclosures are put lower on the list because they will be very complicated – such as cases where there’s a question of who owes the money because there are “75 heirs” who each owe a small amount.
Phillips said he was concerned about the fairness of a foreclosure process that went after high value targets rather than those with the most years of non-payment. He also said it didn’t sound like a very well-defined process.
“This is an issue, as you know, that could bog down the [commissioners’] conversation,” Phillips said. “While all that makes perfect sense, what I’m hearing is that it’s not quantified very well.”
According to Phillips, it’s important to have a great deal of clarity in the process so the Board of Commissioners can justify the order of foreclosures to citizens affected by it.
“What I don’t want to find out is that there’s someone who’s been delinquent eight years that still floating around out there and not being addressed – and yet we’ve amped up intentions on a two-year delinquency,” he said. “That is clearly unacceptable. If we get a complaint or feedback from citizens about something that is inconsistent or seems unfair, then we need to have an explanation for them.”
Phillips didn’t go into the history of the Tax Department’s problems at the committee meetings, but that was one big elephant in the room. Former Guilford County Commissioner Bill Bencini and several other commissioners have raised questions in the past about why some property owners have carried huge tax debts for years with seemingly no repercussions, while the Tax Department simultaneously garnished wages or pursued foreclosure in cases where a smaller amount is owed for less time.
Phillips referred to past discussions and the issue of fairness of execution was clearly on his list at the time when the board was asking for yet more resources to ramp up the foreclosure proceedings.
Phillips also reacted to a statement Payne made that indicated Mason had has other duties for the county’s legal office.
“If you’ve got 930 foreclosures and one guy who leads the charge and that’s not all he’s doing everyday, then we need to rethink that,” Phillips said.
At the meeting, Chavis also spoke about other tools now in place to deal with the foreclosure problem, such as a new website that gives the names of owners and the addresses of properties of owners in various states of foreclosure, and points out exactly where they are in the process.
Lawing praised the new website, which is found at http://foreclosures.myguilford.com.
“That’s got to be the slickest foreclosure sight in the state at least,” the county manager said. “I think were going to submit it for an award next year.”
Mason wasn’t at the committee meeting. He said afterward that there’s currently no exact formula followed to pursue foreclosures, but he added that factors such as the “economic viability of the property” and number of years of non-payment were all taken into account.
“The single biggest factor is years of delinquencies,” Mason said.
The foreclosure issue will be brought to the Board of Commissioners at an upcoming work session when the board will discuss whether Guilford County should hire outside help or add more full-time legal employees to deal with the problem, as well as discuss the best practices for prioritizing those foreclosures.