By Bob Robinson
Eaton County, MI Treasurer
Helping families and property owners avoid tax foreclosure is a primary objective for me as Eaton County Treasurer, and for treasurers across the state. We believe that tax foreclosure is a tragedy, so we take extensive measures to help property owners avoid it whenever possible. Recent statistics from the Michigan Department of Treasury shows that out of 138,661 Michigan properties scheduled to foreclose in 2019, 128,790 of them were avoided (more than 92 percent), largely through the efforts of county treasurers. We hate foreclosing property and work hard finding innovative ways to help property owners keep their properties. In the process, county treasurers have become Michigan's largest and most knowledgeable body of foreclosure prevention experts.
Michigan's General Property Tax Act requires me to foreclose properties that are three years tax delinquent. State law, enacted in 1999, dictates how foreclosure operates, including the use of funds from property tax auctions. It is my constitutional responsibility of to facilitate the law. But the way a tax foreclosure proceeds matters to me.
Do I foreclose properties for trivial amounts of delinquent taxes and fees? No, as shown by the statistics above. Do I tell property owners about the fees and interest owed on the property that is under threat of foreclosure? Absolutely. Six notices are required by state law. In Eaton County, I make ten to twelve attempts, including a personal visit to the property. If legal notice is not adequately made to the property owner and all parties of interest in the property, the foreclosure is withheld from the court's order of foreclose. Does it matter if someone accidentally pays the wrong taxes to the wrong place? Yes it does, and I work closely with locals to find a good way for the taxpayer to get caught up. Do I foreclose on inherited property in probate? No. It is withheld from the court's Judgement of Foreclosure.
County treasurers do not heartlessly foreclose on property when it can be avoided. We provide extensions for those who have lost work, become ill, or are disabled. We work with nonprofit agencies which help taxpayers and refer property owners to many other outside resources such as Veterans Affairs, Housing Services Mid Michigan, Capital Area Community Services, Councils on Aging, MSHDA, transitional housing organizations, Department of Health and Human Services, and banking institutions which can help. I don’t do this because I must. I do it because it's the right thing to do.
When all else fails, and there is no way to avoid the court's Judgement of Foreclosure, by law I foreclose the property. I do not foreclose on trivial amounts. Good judgment is required. The difficulties in a couple of recently publicized cases where property was foreclosed (in other counties) for small amounts of delinquent taxes are extremely infrequent, uncommon, or have extenuating circumstances. Still, as a county treasurer I understand the limitations of the law. That is why I proudly serve on the Board of Directors for the Michigan Association of County Treasurers (MACT), a leading voice in tax reform to protect taxpayers.
Michigan’s foreclosure law is complex (search MCL 211.78a through 211.78r on the web). I welcome the opportunity to work with MACT and the Michigan Legislatures to improve property tax laws and protect the rights of taxpayers. It is important to make sure, however, that timely taxpayers are not burdened with the costs of those who could not or would not pay their property taxes.