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TREASURER OPPOSES HIRING COLLECTION FIRM

A collection agency for unpaid taxes that tried to win Niagara County's business three years ago made another sales pitch this week.

And just as he was three years ago, county Treasurer David S. Broderick is determined to block the hiring of XSPAND if he can.

"We've got a tax department that does an excellent job. We don't need those people in here," Broderick told the County Legislature's Administration Committee Tuesday.

But the committee didn't agree, giving the Morristown, N.J., company an opportunity to work its way through the uncollected tax bills from 1981 to 1999 and report back Dec. 14 on what it can do.

W. Lee Johnston, government affairs officer for XSPAND, said if the company wins a contract from the county, it won't charge a fee but will seek a percentage of whatever back taxes it collects.

Johnston didn't say how big that percentage would be, but when XSPAND made a pitch to the county in the winter of 2001-02 it sought a commission of 20 percent to 25 percent. Tuesday, Johnston spoke of a sliding commission scale based on how old the tax bill is.

Broderick successfully blocked the firm's hiring then, and he hasn't changed his views. "I wouldn't do business with them," he said.

Keith D. Sernick, attorney for XSPAND, said the county has $2.1 million worth of uncollected pre-1999 property tax liens.

"Obviously the county has had little success in collecting them," Johnston said. "The people may have left town; the property may have environmental problems; there's all sorts of reasons."

Broderick said, "There's a significant number that are unenforceable, and we couldn't collect if we tried." He said examples include bankruptcies and properties with environmental red flags, such as land around the former Lake Ontario Ordnance Works in Lewiston and Porter.

But Legislator Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, said, "Unenforceability shouldn't be our concern, since we're not paying (up front) for the service."

"I don't see where we can lose," said Legislator Gerald K. Farnham, R-Lockport.

"We have the ability to track down these older taxpayers," Johnston said. "We'll use skip tracing and all sorts of things. We can trace their employers and how many times they've moved."

Johnston said the county lacks the manpower to do such searches. Broderick said his office could do that kind of thing if it had the aid of a full-time assistant county attorney. The county's attorneys are all employed part time.

XSPAND works for localities in 21 states, including Erie and Monroe counties.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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