Auction brings bargains for some, agony for others

Joe Mahoney | Staff WriterThe crowd at Otsego County’s tax-delinquent property auction is shown Wednesday at the Holiday Inn in Oneonta.

Sprinkled in with the bargain hunters at Otsego County’s auction of tax-foreclosed properties Wednesday were several people grimacing over the fact the county refused to accept their offers of payment to clear up the debt.

The displeasure, in some cases, turned to tears of agony as these homeowners awaited the auctioneer’s acceptance of the high bid for the properties in question, three of which are now the subject of lawsuits seeking to void the tax sale.

Robert and Donna Force watched in frustration as the home they owed in Butternuts, with more than 99 acres of land, sold for $45,000. They had tried to stop the sale through a lawsuit, but the county got the judicial green light to go forward with the auction, though the Forces are appealing.

“We were going to retire up here, but now I’m out of my life savings because they stole my property,” said Robert Force, a disabled Vietnam-era veteran who walks with the aid of a cane. “As far as I’m concerned, Otsego County is a bunch of land grabbers.”

Juliana Elliott, a retired hairdresser from Yonkers, had fallen behind on her taxes on the home she owned at 1640 State Highway 7 in Unadilla. She ended up owing nearly $15,000, after, she said, she had surgery for a kidney failure.

The 2,600-square-foot house, with a listed market value at almost $100,000, sold for less than $50,000 at the auction that drew some 300 people to the Holiday Inn in Oneonta.

She said she had also tried to pay the back taxes last month but was told by the office of County Treasurer Dan Crowell that she missed the June 30 deadline for the payment. She has also brought a lawsuit in an effort to nullify the sale.

Elliott said in an interview that she didn’t know anything about the auction until she stopped at the house one day and saw a man working for the auction company putting up a sale notice on the property.

“What they’re doing isn’t right,” said Elliott, who disagreed with Crowell’s contention that she was properly notified she was at risk of losing her property through the tax auction.

One of the most valuable pieces of property in the sale belonged to Maria Ajello — until the county took the title to her house at 104 Filburn Road, Richfield, along with more than 70 pastoral acres.

It sold for $75,000 as Ajello, a widow employed by the Otsego County Department of Social Services, sat in the gallery of bidders, weeping uncontrollably as her hands gripped her face.

She had also gone to court after Crowell’s office last month rejected her offer to pay the approximately $7,000 in back taxes in full.

Crowell later identified the man who bought the property only as “Mr. Sparks,” noting he did not yet have a chance to review records sent to his office by the auctioneer.

Russell Ahrens, an adult protective services worker for Otsego County who lives with Ajello in the Filburn Road house, said the county’s refusal to accept tax payments just before the auction and its willingness to collect a windfall from the auction are policies that take a harsh toll on senior citizens.

“We used to go out and make personal checks on people in this situation,”Ahrens said. “That doesn’t happen any more. We’re mandated to protect the elderly. But this is exploitation of the elderly.”

Crowell said that after consulting with County Attorney Ellen Coccoma earlier in the day, he was advised to proceed with the auction.

He said each of the tax-delinquent property owners received a cascade of notices, and those properties went into the auction if the delinquencies went back to 2011.

“I’m sympathetic to the people protesting this, to an extent,” he said. “I know they won’t see it this way from where they stand, but if we made exceptions for them it would result in cutting such programs as Meals on Wheels (for senior citizens), or raising taxes on all those people who are paying their taxes.”

The sales executed Wednesday are not final until they are approved by the county Board of Representatives. The board is expected to act at its Sept. 3 meeting in Cooperstown on all sales where there is no unresolved litigation.

Crowell noted the county has prevailed in six earlier legal challenges to tax auction sales.

To recoup all of the taxes owed on the properties offered at the sale, the bids had to collectively reach $540,520.34. Crowell said after the auction that the numbers had not yet been crunched to determine whether that target had been achieved.

The properties go to the new owner unencumbered of the delinquent taxes.

Many of the properties sold at prices well below the listed market value. A house at 122 Chestnut St. in Oneonta garnered a high bid of $55,000, while a home at 473-475 Main St. in Oneonta went for $49,500.

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