Clay may start online tax sales

Staff Writer

Clay County could join a growing list of counties that increase revenues by conducting delinquent tax sales online, opening the door to more bidders.

The online auctions started with two counties two years ago and last year, more counties jumped on board, according to Clay County Tax Assessor Paige Lamkin, who held the county out because county leaders were in the midst of renumbering every street address in the county.

"I definitely think it would be more money for our county," Lamkin told supervisors Monday, recounting the experience from other counties. "The days of no overbids are long gone. I think this is the direction we are going."

Supervisors agreed to have representatives from Govease, the company that provides the service, come explain it to supervisors before a decision is made. The county's next delinquent tax sale is in August.

Under the system, all bids for delinquent properties must be placed online. Lamkin no longer will stand in a courtroom announcing each property from a long list.

For those who don't have home computer access or still want the feel of coming to the courthouse, where the sales have traditionally been held, computers will be set up at the courthouse for the public to place bids.

Lowndes County did the auction system for the first time last year and generated about $200,000 more than what was due. And the system worked smoothly, according to Lowndes County Tax Assessor Greg Andrews.

"We had much more participation. We got more bids. One of our biggest bidders was from Florida. Our local folks who've always done it were able to and I didn't hear too much grousing from them. And at the end, all we had to do was punch a few buttons and we had all our reports and summaries, rather than having to spend days compiling it all," said Andrews, who conducted the Lowndes auction over several days last year to handle all the properties and increase bidding.

In addition to opening up the bidding process, technology allows people from anywhere to go online and view property records and details, including aerial views, so they know about the properties.

Long-time local tax sale participants are a concern for Lamkin.

"The people who have been doing it as a little side business for years and years, the mom and pop folks, that's who I do worry about," Lamkin said, noting some of those buyers got testy last year with a new generation of bidders who were willing to bid more than the taxes owed on a property.

"We had some that got a little touchy last year, some long-time people telling the overbidders to stop," she noted.

At a tax sale, bidders purchase properties on which owners are behind on their property taxes. The original owner has three years to redeem the property by paying the bid amount, interest and other fees.

The tax sales are popular because buyers are paid 18 percent annual interest -- 1.5 percent per month -- on the purchase prices, a rate unmatched by almost any investment tool. The original owner pays that interest as well as the recovery price to redeem it.

If the property is not redeemed in three years, it belongs to the buyer.

Tax sales also are a way for cities and counties not to lose property tax revenues.

While it could mean more revenue for the county, supervisors noted the higher bids would impact residents who are trying to get their properties back.

On another matter, Lamkin said she is trying to overcome Internet problems so her office can take debit and credit cards for license plates and property taxes.

"Everyone wants to swipe their card," Supervisor Luke Lummus said.

"And we want them to," Lamkin said. "But we've had some serious Internet problems and we can't put anything else on it right now. We're trying to get it where we can see car tags before we do anything else."