Pacific County treasurer warns late property taxpayers foreclosure letters are in the mail

Last week, Pacific County Treasurer Renee Goodin sent out the first round of warning letters to homeowners who have yet to pay their property taxes this year. This is the first step in a process that for some could lead to home foreclosure if they can't catch up on back taxes.

PACIFIC COUNTY — With the first half of this year’s property tax payments now on the books, Pacific County Treasurer Renee Goodin has begun generating a list of properties that will go into foreclosure. 

“The Friday after property taxes were due, we were still in the receiving process on payments. But I do have a preliminary list of foreclosures drafted,” Goodin said. “Then I take out bankruptcies and we begin sending out warning letters.”

County policies establish a three-year rolling window for foreclosures, so Goodin is going back to 2008 to generate her list. Any properties in arrears for these past three years will appear on her list.

“We sent out warning letters on Friday so people should begin receiving them this week,” Goodin said.

Tips on catching up

When people get behind on their property taxes, the accumulated payments and interest penalties increase quickly. It is easy to get under water and fall into a debilitating cycle of unpaid taxes.

“What I tell people is first to pay all of 2008 — that will take them off the current foreclosure list. Then I advise them to pay the first half of this year to avoid the penalties,” said Goodin. “After that they can go back and work on the past years’ taxes and fees. 

“We try to work with people if they are willing to come in and talk to us,” she continued. “But sometimes it’s difficult because people just want to put their heads in the ground and ignore our notices.”

For the current year it is extremely important to understand when the biggest late fees are assessed. On June 1 an additional 3 percent is added to unpaid taxes for 2011. But the biggest financial hit comes on Dec. 1, when an additional 8 percent is due. 

Not only that, but after Dec. 1, the entire year’s taxes plus the 11 percent of penalties for 2011 must be paid in one lump sum, adding an additional financial burden. So Goodin’s advice is to make your 2011 tax payment, if at all possible, before the first of December.

“If they miss the Dec. 1 deadline, then the whole year of taxes and fees is due,” said Goodin.

Foreclosure cycles

The number of foreclosure sales appear to go in cycles. “In 2008, we had 17 parcels sold in foreclosure. In 2009, there were 34 parcels, and last year we had 18 parcels,” Goodin said.

Goodin compiled a preliminary list of 323 parcels with unpaid taxes from 2008 forward, but her office has already pared the list down to just over 227 as some people have already come in to pay their taxes and late fees.

“After our warning letters go out and we begin calling to reach people, this list will probably go down to around 60 or so,” said Goodin.

There is a lot of detective work involved in finding property owners who may have moved or are out of state. The treasurer’s office puts in a lot of effort to contact property owners or their closest relatives. 

“We look up addresses on a service we pay for, then we begin trying to call people. It takes many, many hours,” Goodin said.

This foreclosure-warning letter begins a legal process which, unfortunately, adds even more fees to the burden of unpaid taxes. The letter states, “In addition to the tax, interest and penalty reflected on your tax statement, you will need to pay a charge of $25 per parcel for this foreclosure-warning notice.” 

The letter is not a last resort; the foreclosure process is multi-step procedure which takes place from now until the end of the year. The letter merely starts the long process leading ultimately to a foreclosure sale. 

If the total of taxes for all past years, interest and all other fees are not paid by June 30, the foreclosure process begins in earnest and the fees continue to mount. Title searches, certified mailings and court filings take hours of time and add to the ultimate cost of the foreclosures.

How to avoid foreclosure

Aside from simply catching up on property taxes in arrears, there are several ways a property owner can avoid or mitigate this situation.

The first is by declaring bankruptcy. Goodin confirmed that for the current role of foreclosures, there have been 21 bankruptcy filings. When the bankruptcy filing number and the bankruptcy lawyer’s name and contact information is sent to the treasurer’s office, this immediately takes that parcel off the rolls.

In addition, many citizens are not taking advantage of the senior citizen or disability deferral program in place in our county. Basically if your salary falls below $35,000; you are over 61 years of age; and you have been a permanent resident in your house for six months or more, you may qualify for this exemption or tax reduction. 

To find out more about this program or to request an application for exemption, call the Pacific County Assessor’s office at 360-875-9301. There is also an information document that has been prepared by the Washington State Department of Revenue, called “Property Tax Exemption for Senior Citizens and Disabled Persons,” that is available online.

Foreclosure sales

After the letter of warning is sent, a certificate of delinquency follows. This triggers a $200 title report and court filing fee. By the September/October time frame, real estate agents and other interested parties call Goodin’s offce and people begin going out to properties to walk around and assess them for purchase.

“Just before Thanksgiving, we make a list and map available to the public,” said Goodin, “and by Dec. 1 or shortly after, we go out and actually post a notice on the home or property.”

Following this is the actual property sale on the rotunda of the courthouse. The sale is an auction with a minimum cash bid that repays taxes and fees. These funds are deposited with the treasurer. Any excess proceeds are returned to the legal owner of the parcel.

However, to receive these excess funds, property owners must file a simple form before the money can be sent to them. Goodin indicates that there are many disreputable firms who offer to do this for the owner; but they take a hefty percentage of the funds in exchange.

“There is no need to hire anyone to help you file for excess proceeds,” said Goodin. “Legal owners are entitled to 100 percent of these funds.”

If these funds are not claimed after three years, they revert to the county. In the cases where a bank or other mortgage holder actually owns the property, these entities are entitled to the excess proceeds.

Happy ending?

Foreclosures are not the most pleasant aspect of Goodin’s job. But she feels comfortable with the process.

“By the time people get to the foreclosure sales they know that we’ve worked really hard with them. They know the deadlines and all the dates along the way — and they know the situation was basically in their hands.”

“Some folks just decide they don’t want to pay the taxes — like up in Mar Vista, which is a flood plain area,” she said. “Most people know we have done our best.”

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