Otsego County officials are looking at new ways to help financially-distressed property owners keep the tax foreclosure wolf away from their doors.
The county's annual tax auction in 2014 left county government mired in three lawsuits filed by property owners who objected to the fact their houses were sold under the gavel to the highest bidder, causing them to lose all equity and leave the county with the profit.
While the latest discussions do not involve extending the payment deadline up to the time of the auction, the plan under consideration would give all taxpayers a new option: paying their tax bills by credit card.
Under New York's General Municipal Law, local governments are allowed to accept credit and debit card payments for fees, fines, taxes and other charges, according to the state Comptroller's office in Albany.
Critics of the county's firm adherence to deadlines for delinquent tax payments have contended that the goal of tax enforcement should be to simply get the tax bills collected — not to have the county reap a major profit at the expense of someone losing his or her house.
"We want to give folks the ability to pay with their credit cards," said Otsego County Rep. Len Carson, R-Oneonta. "It's just the right thing to do."
Carson said he has been working with Treasurer Dan Crowell, Rep. Andrew Marietta, D-Cooperstown; and Brian Pokorny, the county's information technology manager, in expanding the menu of payment options for county taxpayers.
Crowell said his office has reached out to several companies and selected Muncipay, a firm based in Pennsylvania, to process credit-card payments. Those making such payments would be required to pay an additional 2.45 percent to cover the service, he noted.
The treasurer pointed out that the city of Oneonta already accepts credit card payments. He said the county office would likely see greater use of the service than the city, because the county ends up inheriting the job of collecting overdue tax bills once they go unpaid to local municipalities.
Crowell said accepting credit card payments will help address more of the issues that have arisen regarding the collection of delinquent taxes than moving to a system that allowed partial payments. Partial payments, he noted, could not be accepted from taxpayers facing tax foreclosure.
"Credit cards are a more comprehensively available tool for people who have fallen behind," he said.
Crowell said he will soon begin making personal visits to occupied houses whose owners are facing potential foreclosure this year if their back taxes are not paid by June 30.
As of Monday, approximately 160 property owners have left their taxes go unpaid since 2013, meaning they could face foreclosure unless they pay over the next three months. Crowell said he expects that number to drop significantly once notices are sent to those property owners.
Other than purchasing a credit card reader for $85, there will be no costs to the county for allowing credit card payments for tax bills, Crowell said.
As for the legal challenges brought by those contesting the 2014 auction, the county has prevailed in all of the cases, he said.