By LARRY ROBINSON
The city of Ogdensburg 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, according to City Councilman Michael D. Morley.
“I think it’s getting worse. The jobs aren’t here any more,” Mr. Morley said Monday. “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 given 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 remaining 120 property liens were picked up by the city.
The owners have until next June to pay off the back taxes.
While tax auctions are nothing new in Ogdensburg, 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 approximately two weeks before the 2014 assessment roll is finalized, but that 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 his office recently completed a property revaluation of approximately 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,” Mr. Green said. “The commercial sector is really influence the overall assessment roll.”
Mr. Green said 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 in the form of state Article 7 proceedings 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 increasing number of tax-delinquent properties coupled with a stagnant or shrinking tax base this year may suggest a trend, but she said it does not mean the city is in dire financial straits. She said there is likely business growth not reflected in this year’s pool of assessed valuation, and that a recent increase in the county sales tax rate will help. She also said city officials have been frugal in crafting the current year municipal budget of $19,102,179.
“I look at it in a different light than Councilman Morley,” Ms. Stevenson said. “I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom. Unfortunately we have higher numbers of people not paying their taxes, but we are cognizant of that.”
Both Ms. Stevenson and Mr. Morley agree that any properties the city acquires should be put back on the tax rolls as soon as possible.
“If the city doesn’t need it for any purpose we should put it right up for auction,” Mr. Morley said. “Sell them for whatever the market will bear.”