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July 16, 2008

 

Attorney may handle county foreclosures

Treasurer suggests change to save his office time; county would pay $300 per proceeding

By EVAN GEIBEL
Staff Reporter
egeibel@cortlandstandard.net

Cortland County legislators will explore the possibility of a private law firm taking over the county’s tax foreclosure legal work.
Attorney Richard Beers Jr., from the Rochester office of the Phillips Lytle law firm, told the county’s Budget and Finance Committee Tuesday that he has handled Monroe County’s real property tax enforcement for two decades.
The Cortland County Treasurer’s Office initiates most of the attempts to claim unpaid county taxes, and county Treasurer Patrick O’Mara said Beers’ firm and its work with about six other municipalities had come to the attention of his office at a New York State Association of Counties conference.
Deputy Treasurer Carolyn Kennedy said the necessary title research for initiating tax foreclosure proceedings is performed by a Treasurer’s Office employee without any legal training, and she would like to see the process revised so the staff is not burdened with the time-consuming responsibility.
County Auditor Dennis Whitt said he had “looked at this for four years, and there’s always been issues of efficiency.”
Beers said he has a staff of dozens who deal with property tax foreclosures and redemptions exclusively. His law firm first became involved with Monroe County when its county Attorney’s Office was overwhelmed by the proceedings.
The company would charge Cortland County a $300 fee for each foreclosure. The county would likely add the fee to the delinquent tax bill. Beers said state law only allows municipalities to charge a $150 fee, unless they have permission from a court.
Between 15 to 20 properties are foreclosed on each year.
The Treasurer’s Office completes much of the initial foreclosure paperwork before forwarding it to the County Attorney’s Office for review. From there, the proceedings are taken up in state Supreme Court in Cortland County under Justice Phillip Rumsey.
County Administrator Scott Schrader said it is at this step where the process slows down — Rumsey appoints a different attorney each year to act as an independent attorney to review each of the county’s claims. The cost of that attorney is then charged against the property when it is sold. Kennedy said it varies, depending on the attorney appointed each year.
Schrader was not confident that Rumsey would allow the fee to be set at $300.
Kennedy said the unpaid taxes from 2004 have yet to be resolved.
Rumsey was unwilling to comment later Tuesday until the county had officially notified him about what the discussions pertained to.
Schrader said County Attorney Mark Suben and O’Mara would need to speak with Rumsey regarding the possibility of Phillips Lytle stepping in.
Suben said Beers’ firm’s involvement could provide the necessary argument to do away with an independent attorney.
Beers said he could not promise that his firm would move the process along any quicker.
Kennedy said that about 95 percent of those individuals against whom foreclosure proceedings are initiated end up paying their taxes.
“Our problem isn’t with redemption, it’s with foreclosure … we can’t get the title from the courts to put them up for auction,” Schrader said.
 At Schrader’s recommendation, the legislators also asked Kennedy to prepare a flow chart and timeline of the current process.
The committee will continue to discuss the possibility.

 

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