LITTLE VALLEY — Last year, the Cattaraugus County Legislature voted to begin foreclosure proceedings on property after two years of unpaid taxes instead of three — starting in 2017.

County Treasurer Joseph G. Keller is trying to get the word out to taxpayers that the foreclosure procedures have changed.

If property owners haven’t paid their 2015 and 2016 town and county property taxes by the deadline, foreclosure proceedings could begin by March 31, with the first step being the publishing of properties and owners with unpaid taxes.

The treasurer said Cattaraugus County is among the last counties in New York state to adopt the two-year cycle for foreclosure proceedings to begin.

“I don’t think we were doing anyone a favor with the three-year foreclosure cycle,” Keller said in an interview Friday. “After three years, the penalty and interest is almost 30 percent on top of the original tax bill,” he said.

The taxes are due in January, payable in the town or city clerk’s or tax collector’s office. In February, there is a 1 percent penalty assessed, followed by a 2 percent penalty in March. When the unpaid taxes are returned to the county Treasurer’s Office April 1, the county adds a 5 percent return fee plus 3 percent interest. “Add 1 percent each month until it’s paid or we foreclose,” Keller said.

Of the 55,000 tax bills sent out each year, Keller estimates 90 percent are paid by March 31.

This year, the county has budgeted $385,000 in revenue from the sale of tax acquired property. On 2016, the treasurer estimated revenue of $333,500 and actually received $398,749. The 2015 revenue from tax title property sales was $278,721.

The reduction from three years of unpaid property taxes to two years to foreclose on a property may end up costing the county revenue with one year’s less interest, Keller said.

“We’re doing it to help people,” Keller said of moving to two years instead of three to foreclose on property. “We’re trying to make people aware that it is happening this year so it’s not a surprise when they get a foreclosure letter.”

If the county moves forward with foreclosure, there’s a $170 fee added for a title search in September, and a foreclosure book with all the properties the county could potentially foreclose upon is published in the newspaper.

By the time January rolls around, you need to pay all of your back taxes and penalties to avoid foreclosure.

“That means you’ve ignored 12 to 15 letters over three years,” Keller said, adding that shortening the foreclosure process “will be beneficial to people for not having to come up with large sums of money paying penalties and interest.”

Besides leaving the owners with a smaller tax bill foreclosing in two years, the properties are likely to be in better condition. “Sometimes municipalities like to acquire them and demolish a (blighted) property.”

Keller said there are few owner occupied homes foreclosed on in the county.

“Half of it is vacant land and most of the rest is rental property or vacant,” he said. “It’s not like we’re taking anything great away from people.”

Of the 55,000 properties in the county, less than one-quarter of one percent will face foreclosure, Keller said. “With the new two-year foreclosure policy, we want to make sure people aren’t caught napping.”

Keller said, “Any unpaid 2015 or 2016 county (or) town tax bills owing as of July 1, 2017, will be part of our next foreclosure action with foreclosure fees being added July 1, 2017. Payment of all delinquent tax bills will stop the continuation of that foreclosure process.”

Keller said that if property owners have not received their 2017 tax bill, it can be reprinted from the county’s website at www.cattco.org/real-property-and-gis/rolls-rates.

If paid before March 31, town and county taxes can be paid at the local town or city tax collector’s office.

On Feb. 24, the Treasurer’s Office sent out 870 letters to property owners owing 2015 taxes and another 1,225 who owed and 2016 county taxes informing them that the taxes are due and of the change in the foreclosure period.

(Contact reporter Rick Miller at rmiller@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)

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