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A feeling of (fore)closure



If you owe money to the City of Rochester in the form of back taxes, you've got five years to get caught up. But if you owe it to the County of Monroe, you'd better be prepared to cough up, and fast.

For county property taxpayers who've fallen behind and hope to get into a payment plan, 25 percent of the total amount owed is due up front, and taxpayers have just 12 months to get up to speed, according to Democratic Legislator Mitch Rowe.

Those figures bothered Rowe, even before this year's administrative budget proposal was released. In March, he submitted a legislative proposal to ease pressure on struggling taxpayers. Repayment options "should be based on hardship," he says, using documents like a pink slip or tax return from a property owner to determine eligibility. And the county should provide more hands-on counseling and steady contact with delinquent payers as they struggle to get back on track.

Rowe drew on his experience as a tax-collector for the city when he drafted the referral. He'd already witnessed the difficulties faced by people who can't pay taxes immediately and face foreclosure. If the government can't find a way to work with them, "they go to somewhere else to get money at near-predatory loan [rates]," he says. In the long run, that rarely works out for them.

"I also started thinking about it after last year's tax hike," he adds.

Rowe's legislation suffered a familiar fate for referrals coming from the Democratic side of the lej aisle: it was referred to the administration for consideration.

"I haven't heard a word since," Rowe says, despite recent letters asking for a response. Other democratic legislators who have had referrals sent to the administration have sent requests under New York State's Freedom of Information Law. But Rowe refuses to file FOI requests. "As a legislator, I shouldn't have to file Freedom of Information requests; I'm a member of the government."

Cynics in the Democratic camp could find one possible reason for the stonewalling. And it's buried deep in the proposed 2005 County Budget released by Maggie Brooks last month. That budget calls for more than a three-fold increase in revenue from the sale of homes foreclosed on by the county: in 2004 the revenue was $35,600; in 2005 it's projected at $120,000. It also projects a $400,000 boost in incoming funds from property-tax penalties ($3.8 million in 2004 increasing to a projected $4.2 million in the 2005 budget proposal).

"This is just more evidence that they know people are struggling," he says. A press release from the county legislature's Democratic Caucus also blames the administration for trying to benefit from suffering taxpayers: "The Proposed 2005 County Budget even anticipates and counts on more property owners struggling to pay their tax burden next year," it reads. For Democrats anxious to pin charges of broken tax promises on Brooks for agreeing to raise the levy, this is simply fuel for the fire.

What's worse for Rowe is that these projections are beginning to look accurate. At an auction Thursday, the county sold off properties --- an overwhelming majority of them in the city --- that had been foreclosed on. Among them was the 40-year home of a senior citizen who didn't know it had been sold until after the auction was over, he says. The owner (whom Rowe declined to identify) is working with him and with the county in an attempt to reverse the sale and pay the back taxes. At press time the situation was unresolved, and Rowe and his constituent were waiting to hear back from the county attorney, Dan DeLaus.

But to Rowe, the system has already failed this woman and others like her. He gestures bitterly toward two smiley-faced Jack-o-lanterns that flank the top of a list of foreclosed properties. "What's so funny about taking people's homes?" he asks. "That's pretty damn sad."

Monroe County will hold its public hearing on the proposed 2005 County Budget at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, November 4, in the fourth-floor legislative chambers at the Monroe County Office Building, 39 West Main Street.

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