Harwich lien threat spurs delinquent taxpayers into action

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Faced with $5.5 million in uncollected property taxes and interest, much of it on undeveloped property with questions about ownership, the town of Harwich decided to notify the owners that it planned to sell tax liens to private collection agencies, with the intent to spur delinquent landowners to come forward and begin making payments.
 
The town delayed a tax lien sale originally scheduled for June 6 after owners of more than half of the 300 properties with overdue tax bills began to clear up their delinquent payments. In May alone, 65 property owners came forward, paying $178,000 in full and partial payments, with some owners reaching an agreement with the town on continuing payment plans.
 
Even if the tax lien sale had gone forward, Town Administrator Christopher Clark said, it would not automatically result in properties being seized. A private company would buy the lien on each property, pay the back taxes to the town, and then use that position to either collect from the property owners or foreclose.
 
“The goal was to try and have most people [come forward and pay] voluntarily, so that the number of liens we’d actually sell off would be significantly less,” Clark said. “I think it was down to about 120 properties that would have been on the list if we had gone forward with the sale.”
 
Of the remaining properties, 87 are vacant land. Altogether, the remaining properties represent $2.89 million in taxes and interest.
 
Clark said much of the unresolved payment balances are due to accrued interest.
 
Having worked in several Massachusetts towns, he said he has never before  seen the level of delinquent property taxes that exists in Harwich, pointing out that $5.5 million is significant to a town with a $60 million annual budget.
 
The problem is partly due to a courthouse fire in 1827 that destroyed the original Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, taking with it almost all of the land records.
 
While other Cape Cod towns had worked on clearing up questions of land ownership, Harwich’s situation had been compounded over the years. No one on the list of delinquent taxpayers has a bill that is less than two years overdue, and 164 of the properties are at least 15 years delinquent.
 
More than a few of the people who came forward to clear up their delinquent tax bills told town Treasurer and Collector Amy Bullock that the property was willed to several children of the original property owners, with the delinquent tax bills a matter of familial confusion over who was taking care of it.
 
“Some of this stuff fell in between the cracks a little bit, so most of those people who came forward were very interested in clearing up any problems,” Clark said. “The land values are very high so people didn’t want to lose out on the property by having us sell the lien.”