By Stephen Smoot
West Virginians in real estate property tax arrears will face a considerably shortened period in which to keep from forfeiting their property under a new state law discussed in last week’s county commission meeting.
Carl Hevener, Pendleton County Commissioner, noted “There will be some mad individuals.”
According to the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office, most taxpayers will not be affected by the new law, but “the changes kick in when taxes become delinquent.”
The most significant change comes in the shortening of the period in which the property owner can pay obligations and prevent a final sale. That period decreases from 18 months to 90 days. As one county commissioner mused, “people will lose land they didn’t know they lost,” because of the compressed period of time.
Some property owners could see assistance from the new law. The auditor’s office states that “if your home is sold at a tax sale, you can request a re-payment plan from the Auditor’s Office, to be paid in three installments before the deed is issued to the new purchaser.” Property owners, however, must meet guidelines to be approved for the payment plan.
The new law targeted the cheap purchases of dilapidated properties by out-of-state, absentee owners with no intention of improving the land or structures. Some Potomac Highlands towns, such as Piedmont in Mineral County, have seen a proliferation of such properties to the point where they choke out economic development.
Abandoned and decrepit properties pose numerous problems. In Piedmont, they attracted criminal activities from vandalism to drug dealing. Children are often drawn to them as well. Also, first responders face more danger when addressing fires and rescues in such structures.
Last month, state auditor J. B. McCluskey announced the ambitious goal of removing every dilapidated structure in the state.
Under the previous law, the state auditor’s office conducted tax sales for all 55 counties. All properties not purchased in the county sales would go up again in a single final sale. Those who purchased delinquent properties often did so in hopes of profiting from the interest paid by the owner to redeem their property.
Because of this, “for years the tax sale has been a root cause of slum and blight.”
The law’s chief reform comes in the establishment of a “pecking order” of potential buyers for these properties. The auditor’s office explains that, “the unsold properties will be offered in this order: adjacent landowners, municipalities/land reuse agencies, counties, land stewardship corporation and then the public.” This should ensure that individuals and entities with the most incentive to improve or develop have first access to property purchases.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection also gained the authority to use funds and statewide contracts to remediate dilapidated structures. This includes properties purchased by communities and public corporations intent on redevelopment.
Those who pay their taxes on time and avoid delinquency can still enjoy a two and a half percent discount. Delinquent taxes, however, will still carry a penalty charge of three percent per annum.
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