Plan offered to collect tardy taxes; Candidate Donofrio proposes program

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — Yesterday, seven days before the election, John Donofrio, Democratic state treasurer candidate, proposed a program that he said would help counties collect $100 million in delinquent property taxes and make that money available to schools and local governments.

But critics said the proposal doesn’t make sense for counties outside large, urban areas of northeast Ohio.

Mr. Donofrio, who has been Summit County treasurer 19 years, wants to allow all of Ohio’s 88 counties to sell tax certificate liens. Essentially, counties would be able to sell liens on delinquent taxes to a private company at auction. The company then would collect the taxes and charge the taxpayers interest.

If the property owner did not pay up within a year, the private company could choose to foreclose on the land. If no one bought the land at a foreclosure sale, it would be forfeited to the company.

The benefit to counties, Mr. Donofrio said, is that they get the uncollected money upfront from the company, without having to go through a long process, which doesn’t guarantee that any money would be gained.

Under state law, Ohio’s largest 12 counties, including Lucas, already can hold this sort of certificate sale. Saturday, Mr. Donofrio’s Summit County held its first, selling 3,000 certificates to a Florida company for $6.2 million. He said $4 million in unpaid taxes came in when he sent a letter to all the delinquent property owners, telling them about the certificate sale, and an additional $6 million in back taxes were put onto payment plans.

But critics, including the campaign of Mr. Donofrio’s opponent, Republican Joe Deters, said that certificate sales don’t make sense for most counties, who don’t have enormous numbers of delinquent properties or have trouble selling land at foreclosure.

Even some county treasurers who strong ly support Mr. Donofrio said that extending the program to all 88 counties might not make sense.

“I know John wants to make some hay, and I support his election and he would be an excellent treasurer, but he’s off track here,” Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest said. “This is an extremely draconian way to collect taxes.”

Mr. Kest said that most states have either a foreclosure system or a lien system to collect unpaid taxes and that extending the liens as Mr. Donofrio suggests would mean Ohio had both.

Lucas County will have a small certificate sale soon, he said, but sales don’t make any sense for smaller counties without much urban property.

“It’s a good plan for the larger counties, but for the majority of counties, it doesn’t make sense,” Henry County Treasurer Calvin Spiess said. “In smaller counties, we know the people who pay the taxes, if they’re having trouble … we try to work with them. An outside company might not do that.”

Mr. Donofrio said he would not consider selling certificates on many properties, such as churches, land owned by people in bankruptcy, or those with small amounts of taxes due.