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Editorial: County finally taking the needed steps to go after property tax delinquents

Erie County elected officials were left with no choice other than to spend taxpayer money next year in order to force hundreds upon hundreds of property owners to give up what has become a too-common practice: refusing to pay their county property tax bills.

The scofflaws, especially those in the city, had realized that it was unlikely they would be held accountable. The county’s 2004 budget crisis gutted the county’s Department of Real Property Tax Services, severely limiting the county’s ability to begin foreclosure proceedings against property owners in arrears.

The county restarted foreclosure actions against suburban properties in 2012, but allowed the city to conduct foreclosure proceedings on city properties. When it became apparent what was happening, many tax-delinquent property owners paid their city taxes to stave off foreclosure, but did not pay their county taxes.

Now resources have been replenished and some of that money will be used to go after bad actors. The county budget set aside $1.17 million for legal costs to pursue foreclosures against approximately 1,500 property owners who owe back county taxes, including up to 500 Buffalo property owners.

It is not as if all these property owners were unaware of the tax bills or unable to pay county taxes. Keeping current on city property taxes while ignoring the county bills is pretty good evidence of the game being played.

“We don’t want scofflaws to get away with something when the majority of property owners comply with the laws,” said Timothy Callan, the county’s deputy budget director.

As of August, an astounding 3,000-plus property owners in the city owed nearly $1.8 million to Erie County. More than half failed to pay county taxes for at least three years. Now the party’s over. This year, for the first time since 2005, the county has been going after city property owners who owe county taxes. And the threats of more to come are real.

The worst of the worst will lose their property if they do not pay up. So far, the crackdown has generated more than $750,000 for the county from nearly 150 of the worst offenders.

Some consideration should be given to property owners in financial distress. But red flags are raised when a property owner is somehow able to pay the city tax bill while neglecting the county’s.

The county’s commitment to going after delinquent property owners sends a strong message to these people that they cannot continue to enjoy a free ride on the backs of their taxpaying neighbors.

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