Sedgwick County needs to get tough with delinquent taxpayers who use loopholes to avoid paying their fair share, a commissioner implored Wednesday.
Commissioner Jim Skelton said he was sick of seeing so many names on the list of delinquent real estate taxpayers, which is published in The Eagle, the county’s official newspaper for legal notices. He said he’s especially weary of seeing the same people on the list year after year.
Outstanding taxes due the county total $16.5 million for tax year 2011, including real estate and personal property taxes. That number also includes bankruptcies that the county legally can’t collect on, an e-mail from the treasurer’s office said.
In a county that had been facing a $9.3 million deficit, $16.5 million would go a long way.
Past-due taxes are the “largest and most improper subsidy” the county gives out, Skelton said.
“The rest of the taxpayers are subsidizing these delinquencies,” he said later, noting that the county could have used money from back taxes for senior services and to keep the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch open for more than a year.
In an off-agenda item that surprised some, Skelton said it was time to engage County Treasurer Linda Kizzire and legislators about ways to change state laws to make it easier to force folks to pay up faster.
“I just continue to be frustrated by this,” Skelton said, holding up the latest delinquent real estate tax list. “This is something that none of us consent to.”
State law sets out the process for dealing with back taxes. Real estate parcels are eligible for tax foreclosure sale after taxes remain unpaid for 3 1/2 years, according to Kizzire’s note in the published list.
Skelton said people are “playing a game” avoiding tax foreclosure sales by paying one year’s taxes each year but leaving other years’ taxes unpaid.
“Shame on them,” he said.
“We’ve got budget problems; this is a way to mitigate those problems.”
The county should be able to turn tax scofflaws into credit report agencies and use bill collectors to go after them, Skelton said.
“To my knowledge, we’re doing nothing about this,” he said. “Doing nothing is not the answer.”
Kizzire said in an e-mail that she would be meeting with Skelton about his concerns.
The county typically has four tax foreclosure sales a year, county counselor Rich Euson said. This year, there were three, on July 16, July 23 and Aug. 20.
Geary County Treasurer Kathy Tremont, who is president of the Kansas County Treasurers Association, said tax sales have worked there to induce people to pay.
Delinquent tax listings “make people aware that their property could be subject to tax sale if they don’t get them paid in a timely matter,” she said.
The association, she said, is always looking for better ways to get people to pay their taxes. She said the group had not approached the Kansas Legislature about changing the law to allow counties to turn taxpayers over to bill collectors.
Skelton said he didn’t want to hear anymore about the impediments to collect taxes. If the laws aren’t working, he said, it’s time to change them.
“I don’t know all the answers here to solve the problem,” he said after the commission meeting. “All I have at this point are some suggestions.”
Haskell County Treasurer Nancy Weeks, who is chair of the association’s legislative committee, said counties can hire a collection agency to collect back taxes on personal property such as boats.
“But for real estate, about the only thing you can do on that is wait the time period and have tax sales,” she said. “We have talked about wanting to shorten the time that (property) has to sit there before you do a sale. It’s just a lengthy, complicated process.”
She agreed with Skelton that some people “pay just enough so the county can’t sell their property.”
Such people might pay one year’s taxes every year, but they don’t try to get caught up completely, she said.
“It just seems like if there’s a will, there’s a way and they figure it out. I hate to say that but it’s the truth, unfortunately,” Weeks said.