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Ogdensburg acquires 16 properties for back taxes

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OGDENSBURG — The city took title to a higher-than-usual number of tax-delinquent properties last month, while at the same time the city Assessor’s Office is bracing for what could be an overall drop next month in the amount of taxable property in the community.

The uptick in delinquent property acquisitions — balanced against the backdrop of a shrinking tax base — could spell more trouble for city homeowners already grappling with one of the highest property tax burdens in St. Lawrence County, City Councilman Michael D. Morley said.

“I think it’s getting worse. The jobs aren’t here any more,” he said. “As we acquire more properties, that means more property is coming off the tax rolls. Then we have to raise taxes again. The taxes are getting high enough where people are starting to lose their homes.”

City Comptroller Philip A. Cosmo said the city assumed the title to 16 properties ranging from vacant lots to family homes because the owners were behind more than a year’s worth of a combination of city, school or county property taxes. He said the city normally takes title to five to 10 in a year.

“Most of it is vacant. A couple look like they are inhabited,” Mr. Cosmo said.

Mr. Cosmo said the most recent properties taken over by the city were from the municipality’s 2012 tax lien sale, and were acquired when no third-party buyers were interested in purchasing the existing liens. He said each year in June, the liens on tax-delinquent properties hit the auction block and potential buyers bid on the right to hold the lien for the amount of back taxes. If after one year the tax lien is not paid off with interest, the lien holder acquires the property. In the case of properties in which no one is interested, the city assumes the lien.

Mr. Cosmo said at this year’s tax auction on June 25, a total of 265 parcels were auctioned for unpaid 2013 taxes. Of those, 145 were sold to outside bidders and the other 120 property liens were picked up by the city.

The owners have until next June to pay off the back taxes.

The increase in city-acquired properties this year comes at the same time the community’s tax base could see negative growth. City Assessor C. Bruce Green said it will be about two weeks before the 2014 assessment roll is finalized, but he expects the city’s total taxable value to dip below the current figure of $272,277,781. The expected dip comes despite the fact that his office recently completed a property revaluation of about 900 homes in the community.

Twenty-nine property owners took assessment grievances to the Board of Assessment Review this year, and those adjustments are still being calculated, Mr. Green said. “I think we will be down slightly,”he said. He said the 2013 tax roll in the city is comprised of about 60 percent residential properties and 40 percent commercial and other categories. He said the drop in the amount of taxes paid by businesses is what is likely to drag down the tax rolls. He attributed the decline, in part, to successful grievances filed by commercial property owners seeking to have their property assessments reduced.

“They are adjusted down by court action,” Mr. Green said. He said there are approximately seven such court challenges over commercial assessments pending with the city this year.

Councilwoman Jennifer Stevenson said the city isn’t in dire financial straits and city officials have frugally crafted the current year municipal budget of $19,102,179.

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