Courthouse Square




Washington County’s Courthouse Square office building

The Washington County commissioners last week approved a postponement of an annual sale of property for which taxpayers have been delinquent for two years.

At the meeting conducted via teleconference, county solicitor Jana Grimm received unanimous approval from the board to authorize the Tax Claim Bureau to petition the Court of Common pleas to issue what’s known as a “stay” of the sale.

Attorney Blane Black, who handles legal matters for the bureau, said he plans to present a motion to President Judge Katherine B. Emery as early as this week. The sale of properties on which back taxes have been due for two years is usually advertised in August and conducted in September.

The sale, which in the past has drawn a crowd to the public meeting room of the Courthouse Square office building, had been postponed until late November due to the effects of the novel coronavirus.

One of three sales typically conducted during a calendar year by the Tax Claim Bureau, the delinquent tax sale is also known as the “upset sale.”

Of course, having one’s property exposed to public sale can be devastating for the owner, but the term “upset” in this case does not refer to the deed-holder’s plight. It means the lowest acceptable selling price for a property in an auction.

No new date has yet been chosen, but the motion that the commissioners approved asks that the sale “be stayed for a time not to exceed one year.”

“With all the issues with COVID, plus switching software systems, we’re just not able to do it,” Black said. “Other counties are having the same issues. It’s the right thing to do and the commissioners don’t want to punish people. They don’t want to take people’s property since we’re in a global pandemic, so they’ll get a break for another year.”

Some of the “issues” include people refusing to answer their doors during the pandemic when a sheriff’s deputy attempts to personally serve them with legal documents related to a sale of property.

A stay also give someone who is in financial straits due to job loss or a reduction in working hours giving “people a little more time to get things in order,” Black said.

He stressed that the upset sale is not a free-and-clear sale in which liens and other encumbrances are removed from properties. That occurs at a later stage in the auction process.

“If it includes liens, it is up to the purchaser of the property to handle those,” Black said.

Because the situation can potentially become confusing, earlier this year Washington County Treasurer Tom Flickinger reminded taxpayers that, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the commissioners are waiving only penalties on county real estate taxes owed for the calendar year 2020.

Property owners must still pay what is known as the face value of tax owed this year, but the penalties will not apply to tax levies if paid by year’s end.

Tax bills for 2020 were sent before COVID-19 struck the United States, so printed on the notice were face amounts due June 30 and penalized amounts of 10% beginning July 1, but those payment instructions for this year should be disregarded.

Taxpayers should only remit the face amount of any tax due the county until the end of 2020.

Flickinger said he’s also seen taxpayers ignoring the penalty waiver, which actually creates more work for the county treasurer’s office because his staff must issue refunds for what is essentially overpayment of 2020 taxes.

And he emphasized real estate taxes due from prior years, including 2018 and 2019, will still have penalties and fees accruing if they were not paid during those years.

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