County says 15,698 still haven't paid property tax

Earlier this year, Derby Mayor Dion Avello made what he said was a difficult choice. To help keep his printing business open, he paid his property taxes — just less than $10,000 — late.

He'd never done that, he said, in 13 years of being in business.

The Sedgwick County treasurer's office is seeing others in similar situations in the midst of layoffs and a tough business climate.

"We're seeing slower payments," treasurer Ron Estes said Friday. "What I've seen last year and this year as well is there are people who are delaying a little bit more."

In November, the county billed about $570 million in taxes for about 255,000 properties. The second half of those payments were due May 10. As of July 30, about $22.7 million remained due from 15,698 property owners.

The $22.7 million figure includes interest, which is set by the state each year. This year's interest rate is 7 percent. It also includes a $16 penalty fee that helps offset the cost of publishing notice that property owners are behind on their taxes and could face foreclosure proceedings.

In tax year 2005, about 12,191 property owners were late with their taxes. The county billed about $452.7 million in taxes that tax year, and about $13.2 million was delinquent.

For tax year 2008, the county billed about $553.8 million, and 17,145 property owners were late with about $22 million.

In its second quarter financial report, the county's budget staff said that the recession and layoffs were affecting tax collections and estimated that taxes would be just about $1 million lower than the revised budget for this year "as slower collections are impacting the collection rate." Estes said that number is less now because some property owners have paid since receiving notice their taxes were late.

The county can set up payment plans for property owners struggling to pay taxes, Estes said.

Many people pay after seeing their name — or getting a call from a relative or friend who's seen their name — in the legal notices that will begin running Aug. 16 in the county's paper of record, The Wichita Eagle. Notices will run Aug. 16, Aug. 23 and Aug. 30.

If taxes are not paid by September, property owners will face possible foreclosure.

"There's a three-year waiting period before we can foreclose on them," Estes explained. "If they're not paid by September, we will launch into the tax foreclosure process."

Part of that process involves Estes reading a proclamation on the first floor of the courthouse, usually the Tuesday after Labor Day. The proclamation dates back to when announcements were made on courthouse steps, and the reading is still required by state statute.

Property owners who go into foreclosure face additional fees, about $350.

"I do try to work with people to let them know when the fees will be added so they could pay taxes and interest before then to avoid extra costs. My goal, actually my job description, is to collect the taxes for the county, the cities, the schools, etc.," Estes said. "Adding fees or selling the property at a tax foreclosure sale doesn't really help anyone."

The county has another incentive to get people to pay delinquent personal property taxes, which include taxes on boats, jet skis and trailers.

"They're not allowed to tag their vehicle," Estes said.

The county handles its own collections.

"In the past when we've sent them out, we've had mixed results," he said.

Avello paid his taxes last month. He said his "competitive spirit" fueled his decision to keep Acme Lithographers in business, even if it meant paying his taxes late. He's restructured his business to do so, concentrating more on selling directly to other companies instead of to other printers.

"We do see a light at the end of the tunnel and we dug in our heels," Avello said.

County commissioners will vote next week on next year's budget, about $415 million. The budget does not call for an increase in property tax rates, although people still could pay more if the value of their property increases.

Commissioners were adamant during budget talks that the county's mill levy not increase. The last hearing at which the public can comment on how their taxes are spent will begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the commission's chambers on the third floor of the courthouse. Commissioners expect to adopt the county's budget at their meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday.