Tuesday, March 18, 2014

One small answer as to the process ...

I noticed that the Borough had to do a second public notice (same material, week later).  I also noticed that the fine print reads that up until the property is auctioned, the owner can pay off the amount listed including any interest accrued but only by cash or certified check.  Cash is no big deal if it is easy for you to get to Borough Hall and you have no qualms about carrying around a large amount.  Certified checks require a visit to a bank, which if you are already having problems because the signer is ill, in a nursing home, or this is part of an estate can be really problematical.    Especially since you can be charged more than is listed on the public notice as there may be more interest yet.  Then imagine being out of town or worse, out of state. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ignorant of the process but uneasy .....

On March 10, 2014 the Borough of Newfield published a notice in the South Jersey Times for public auction of properties where the owners are behind in their tax and water bills.  Because I am ignorant of the process, I had intended to attend the 3/13/14 Council Meeting and asked questions.  Unfortunately, a head cold descended and I can only whisper.  So I am going to ask my questions here and hope someone answers.

I did I scan thru the notice and what immediately popped out was how many of properties were behind in water bills only.  I also noticed that some of the properties seem to be owned by deceased individuals or those living in a nursing home.  This makes me uneasy as I know that getting power of attorney and/or probate is a slow process not for the frail nor for those living some distance away especially those residing out-of-state.

The very first listing names the Secretary of Veterans Affairs as owner and is being put up for auction for a water bill of $79.47.  What are the criteria for a property to go on the list?  How many days late does the bill have to be?  Does any amount count or does it need to exceed a threshold like $15?  How do the clerks contact the listed owner to arrange payments?  Sending a water bill to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs probably takes months to trickle down to the right person in the bureaucracy who is responsible and then several more months to get authorization to make a payment.

Then, there is the problem of do the clerks have a correct address for the listed owner.  When mail was sorted in our local post office building, wrong addresses were often "corrected" by the local postal workers because they knew the people living in our zip code.  Now, mail is sorted somewhere in Vineland by machine and those "corrections" don't happen.

I put the entries into a spreadsheet so I could do a quick data analysis.  There are more than 70 properties listed - 20 for late taxes only, 12 for late taxes and water, and 40 for late water only.  The late taxes needed total $47,808.05; the late taxes and water total $29,884.95; water only totals $9,487.58.  Focusing on the water only entries, the amounts run from a low of $29.90 to a high of $548.78; 7 properties are listed for bills under $100; 12 properties over $100 to under $200 and those 12 total to $1,746.65.  [The public notice cost $1,543.68]

There are stories of hardship buried in these dry numbers - businesses impacted by the economy and never recovering; homes being foreclosed; deaths and illnesses.  There may also be protest of water quality or of water billing procedures lurking in the listings.  I realize the Borough needs revenue and that the only official "weapon" in their arsenal is public auction to end such disputes. So I am hoping this is some sort of negotiating strategy for those cases because I would really be dismayed if someone's home was sold out from under them for $44.32.

I have had my own water billing procedure protest, I must confess.  I was getting water bills for awhile with a little E next to the amount.  Silly me, coming from Seattle, I assumed the E meant the reading was taken electronically as it is done there.  No, it was E for Estimated because the water meter was broken.  So, the water meter was finally fixed and I got hit with a large water bill to make up the difference between actual and estimated (how they knew the actual amount I have no idea.).  I went into Borough Hall to speak with them and let them know I would be paying the bill in 3 equal installments as I am on a fixed income as are many Newfield residents and had had to adjust my budget to accommodate the extra expenses.  Since the fact was that I hadn't broken the water meter, I hoped they would waive any interest due because of the three payments as other utilities such as gas and electric will do.   First off here is the exact wording on the back of the bill regarding late payment:
"A rate of interest on delinquent water is hereby fixed at 18% per annum or 1 1/2% per month.  A ten day grace period will be allowed before any interest will be charged."
I made the first payment on time as budgeted, and then the next one was 20 days after the due date and ten days into the late payment.  Then I received a bill showing interest being charged and taken from my second payment.  I was angry and when the third budgeted amount came due, I paid what I had planned.   This, of course, left a balance.  My sister went in and paid the amount because she didn't want us to get into a delinquent tax situation or worse have our water cut off even though she agreed with my anger.  First of all, the 18% is a ridiculous rate now-a-days.   Second of all, how many other fixed income residents were treated this shabbily?  Can you tell I am still fuming?  I know what the ordinance says but the Borough bears some responsibility also as they took so long to fix the meter.   This should lead to some flexibility in how the ordinance is applied.

My own experience doesn't give me hope that there will be compassion applied to those properties up for auction where extenuating circumstances exist.  I have said it before, and say it again: The Borough of Newfield is not a business but a community; political and legal decisions should reflect Newfield community values such as volunteerism, extending helping hands to neighbors, and fostering minds and bodies of the community's children.