Most pay their tax bills

The percent of tax delinquencies is not as high as it might seem.
The percent of tax delinquencies is not as high as it might seem.

An article in the Sunday Eagle about the millions owed to the city of Wichita in special assessments, and the 26 pages of delinquent property taxes published in Monday’s Eagle, could make some Wichitans feel as if they’re the only ones who pay their taxes on time. But the percent of delinquencies is not as high as it might seem. Also, the city and Sedgwick County are restricted by state law in how aggressive they can be in collecting unpaid taxes.

About 1,270 property owners are delinquent in paying about $4.8 million in specials assessments for streets, sewers, flood control and other improvements, The Eagle reported. About 815 of those property owners owe less than $1,000, and 20 developers owe nearly half of the $4.8 million.

What makes Kansas unusual is that, unlike in nearly every other state, cities front the cost of the improvements, instead of the developer or homeowner. As a result, when the property owners don’t pay their specials, Wichita (and the rest of its taxpayers) are out the money to repay the city bonds.

Wichita officials blame much of the delinquencies on the down economy, which particularly hurt housing developers. But City Manager Robert Layton told The Eagle editorial board that the city ends up collecting most of the delinquent specials, plus interest.

The legal notice published in The Eagle for three consecutive Mondays list delinquent real estate taxes for 2014, which were due this past May 10. More than 17,000 properties are listed in the notice, with delinquent taxes totaling more than $18 million.

Though the list is long, the $18 million in delinquencies is only about 3 percent of the county’s nearly $570 million in total property tax billings. Sedgwick County Treasurer Linda Kizzire said the county collects most of the taxes on the delinquent list, plus interest and a fee.

Kizzire said that many people on the delinquent list are elderly or have moved or may have lost their jobs. Many of them pay their bill soon after seeing their names in The Eagle, she said.

Still, there are some people who abuse the system, dragging out their tax payments for years. Unfortunately, there is not a lot the city and county can do to combat these scofflaws.

State law prohibits the use of collection agencies for delinquent property taxes, Kizzire said. It also requires the county to wait 2 1/2 years before foreclosing on vacant lots, and 3 1/2 years before holding a tax foreclosure sell on other real estate parcels. Other legal steps and requirements can add an additional year to this process, Kizzire said.

Lawmakers should see if state laws need adjusting to help boost collections or speed up foreclosures while still protecting property rights. The city should see if there are additional safeguards it could put in place to make sure it is repaid for improvements.

Another possible change is for the city to stop paying for development improvements. But as Layton noted, such a change would be difficult to make, as the current practice is part of the culture of Kansas.

It’s frustrating when you pay your tax bills while others aren’t as responsible. But the overwhelming majority of people do pay, and the legal notices and foreclosure sales help make sure that happens.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee