When a North Buffalo homeowner mailed a check to pay property taxes that fell several dollars short of a late fee that was owed, the city informed her that it couldn't cash the check unless the full sum was paid.
She faced a common dilemma. In a typical year, a few thousand people send checks to the city tax office that don't quite cover the full amount they owe. Many discrepancies are caused by a failure to send all or part of late charges that are assessed as a percentage of the tax bill. When checks are rejected, it often results in additional late fees being owed.
It's not that the city is being hard-nosed, tax officials insisted. They point to laws that bar the acceptance of checks that don't cover the entire debt -- including late fees.
In response to the complaint filed by the Hertel Avenue property owner, Mayor Byron W. Brown has instructed city tax officials and attorneys to look into changing the law. If someone pays the full property tax bill but fails to include all or part of a late charge, Brown said, it doesn't seem fair to reject the entire payment.
The mayor wants to review the pros and cons of accepting the checks, then sending letters that notify the individuals of how much additional money is owed.
"It sounds to me like it would be a sensible modernization of our Charter," Brown said during a recent meeting of CitiStat, Buffalo's accountability panel.
But state tax law would also likely have to be changed, some city officials said.
Then there are the tricky logistics involved in accepting what would essentially be partial payments, cautioned Assessment and Taxation Commissioner Martin F. Kennedy.
"It would probably create an accounting nightmare. It's not just dealing with one person," Kennedy said.
Meanwhile, some neighborhood housing advocates have long pushed for a broader reform. For several years, they have urged the city to allow partial tax payments. They believe that the change would make it easier for financially struggling property owners to pay their bills and avoid property foreclosures.
Nearly 3,200 homes and 437 businesses are on a list of properties that will be auctioned next month if the debts remain unpaid or property owners fail to set up payment plans.
Michele Johnson, an East Side housing activist who co-founded Buffalo's Anti-Flipping Task Force, said that accepting partial payments would help many cash-strapped residents keep their homes. She also thinks the new policy would help curb "flipping," a practice used by some investors who buy cheap homes at foreclosure sales, then quickly sell them at inflated prices without making improvements.