Some property owners who paid their Buffalo city taxes to avoid foreclosure have ignored their county tax bills for years because the county – until recently – hasn’t threatened any city property with foreclosure. Homes like these on Hawley Street have unpaid county property taxes stretching back more than a decade. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Erie County recently cracked down on delinquent Buffalo property owners after a decade of ignoring them. And the payoff was big.

The county threatened to foreclose on nearly 150 city properties with large unpaid tax bills for years, and that prompted 80 percent of the owners to make payments. The county recovered nearly $650,000 in full or partial tax payments before last month's auction of delinquent parcels.

Six city properties were ultimately sold at auction for $104,000.

In all, about three-quarters of a million dollars went to county coffers.

That exceeded what county officials expected, said Joseph Maciejewski, the county's director of real property tax services.

That 113 property owners met their tax obligations to the county offers further evidence they hadn't paid them because no one made them do so until now.

"Obviously, if they were hard pressed to pay, they would have come to us and asked for some type of administrative stay or hardship," he said.

As previously reported, more than 3,000 property owners in the city owed nearly $1.8 million in property taxes to Erie County through 2015 even though they had paid city property taxes, according to a Buffalo News analysis. More than half of those owners failed to pay their county taxes for at least three years.

The county budget crisis in 2004 gutted the county's tax enforcement personnel. While the county eventually restarted foreclosures on suburban properties, county officials ignored city properties for more than 10 years.

As a result, many city property owners realized they could avoid paying their county tax bill year after year without consequences. City officials, in contrast, threaten foreclosure within two years of unpaid taxes, trash fees and sewer bills.

Nearly 90 homes and commercial properties current with city taxes have owed county taxes for a decade or more.

The county had hoped to take action against up to 300 delinquent city properties this year with surplus money allocated to cover the legal expenses involved in property foreclosure. But due to miscommunication with the city, which also forecloses and auctions delinquent properties, the county ended up moving forward with only 145 delinquent properties.

Residential Buffalo properties comprised the vast majority of what the county began taking to foreclosure proceedings this year. Those who paid their taxes to keep their properties from the auction block paid anywhere from $1,100 to $21,700, according to tax department data.

Some others received hardship exemptions or filed for bankruptcy. Of the six city properties that were sold at auction, five are homes located along the Kensington Expressway.

A countywide tax enforcement and foreclosure effort resulted in $14.4 million collected in overdue tax payments and auction proceeds.

Looking ahead to next year, Maciejewski said he plans to meet with the Buffalo city assessor to better coordinate city and county foreclosure actions.

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