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Like Buffalo, Erie County keeps mum on surpluses from home foreclosures

Dozens of foreclosed suburban property owners – from Evans to the Town of Tonawanda – could claim $1.43 million in surplus money from Erie County’s annual in rem.

But like Buffalo residents who lost their homes to tax foreclosure, they don’t know because they were never told.

Also similar to the city, the county isn’t mandated to inform or notify them about leftover funds.

“There’s nothing in our charter, state law or the Erie County Tax Act pertaining to surplus,” said Joseph L. Maciejewski, director of county’s real property tax services. “But it’s definitely something we would consider adding to our standard operations and procedures.”

The funds are from the sale of 76 properties in 17 municipalities, at auctions between 2012 and 2014.

The county can only recoup property and school taxes. The balance can be claimed by the owner of record or their executor of estate and heirs. Lienholders, creditors and other stakeholders can also be claimants.

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SEARCHABLE DATABASE: Property auction surpluses, 2009-14

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The average amount is $19,582. The highest – $65,938 – is for an Elma property auctioned off in 2012. Cheektowaga tops the list of most properties with 17, totaling $205,512 in excess proceeds, with an average surplus of $12,088. Tonawanda is second with 13 properties that have $198,938 in surplus. The average payout is $15,302.

The funds are in an account managed by the county comptroller, who is also the custodian of the $11.6 million left from Buffalo’s auctions held in 2009 to 2014. They are transferred to the state Comptroller’s Office and deposited into the general fund after 5 years.

The city and county are both mum about the funds. But after a Nov. 26 Buffalo News article about the city’s surplus auction money, proposed state legislation was amended to require the city to notify owners.

Maciejewski said the county is looking to make similar changes but pointed out that there are marked differences between the two governments.

To start, the county collects taxes for 25 towns, 14 villages and 33 school districts. But only 3 percent are delinquent, making its foreclosures a fraction of the city’s. Also, the county hasn’t seen record auction sales resulting in a number of properties with higher and more numerous surpluses like the city has.

In 2009, 826 city properties were sold, totaling $4.6 million, at the city’s auction. Of that, 158 properties fetched more than what was owed to the city, leaving $1.1 million. But in 2014, 808 properties brought in $9.2 million, and 324 netted surpluses, totaling $4.6 million.

Maciejewski said the county rarely takes in enough to cover the tax debt.

His office is accommodating when foreclosed owners call with questions about excess proceeds and how to make claims, he said.

The county comptroller’s office had inaccurately estimated almost $3 million in surplus money. But only $1.9 million has been transferred to the comptroller’s office from Maciejewski’s office between 2012 and 2014. Of that amount, $444,952, or 23 percent, have been claimed. Often, residents learn they are entitled to the money through businesses that charge to reunite people with unclaimed assets.

Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw, who disburses the funds through a State Supreme Court order, said these companies request the unclaimed list of properties each year to track down previous owners.

But these companies’ finders’ fees often range from 15 percent to a third of the money.

The county issues up to 18 notices during the foreclosure process and offers payment arrangements.

“They do have an obligation as homeowners to inquire about the surplus; it can’t always be the government chasing people down for their money,” Maciejewski said.

But he admitted the auction surplus may not be common knowledge.

Claiming the money is a legal process presided over by a State Supreme Court justice. A lawyer is recommended and the process can take up to two months.

The Western New York Law Center launched a formal program and hotline last week to provide free assistance. The number is 855-0203, Ext. 124.

email: esapong@buffnews.com