Wednesday, October 24, 2007

November Tax Lien Sale Set

The city will hold a tax lien sale Nov. 28 in hopes of recouping $1.8 million in back taxes to boost revenues for the 2008 fiscal year that began July 1.

Mishaps in April delayed the traditional sale and caused the tax collection rate to drop from 95 percent to 93.5 percent, Tax Collector Maria Glavan told the City Council at Tuesday’s budget talks. At a tax lien sale, bidders buy the liens and pay the back taxes to the city. The property owner then owes the lien holder the debt, at interest as high as 18 percent, and can eventually face foreclosure if the debt is not paid.

Councilman Rashid Burney, who heads the council’s finance committee, urged Glavan to aim for an even higher collection rate.

“Ninety-five percent is very good, but how do you get to 97 percent? Can we ever get there?” he asked.

Glavan said “due diligence” on collection could raise the rate. For example, she said, some property owners declare bankruptcy when faced with paying back taxes. But they may fail to follow through on the bankruptcy procedures and a judge may dismiss the case. Glavan said as soon as she gets a dismissal, she tries to get the back taxes.

“You don’t want to keep anything on your books,” she said.

Municipalities must hold funds in reserve against the amount of back taxes owed, and having to set aside a large amount for FY 2008 is part of the reason for an anticipated 8 percent tax hike in the administration’s proposed budget. The council is holding budget deliberations to see where cuts can be made to get the increase down to no more than 4 percent.

Glavan said when she was the tax collector in Irvington, she was able to increase a collection rate “in the eighties” to rates over 90 percent.

“Keep everything up to date,” she said. “The problem is where you let things just sit.”

Glavan was hired earlier this year. The city had been operating with a tax collector who worked fulltime in another city and was only in Plainfield on Wednesdays.

Other divisions of the Administration & Finance Department studied Tuesday were Municipal Court, the Senior Center, Bilingual Day Care Center and Dudley House.

Revenues are declining in Municipal Court because crime is down, Chief Municipal Court Administrator Marylene Sheppard said. Five staff vacancies will not be filled unless the need increases. Work is being covered using flex-time and overtime. Two part-time workers do not incur benefits costs, she said. Another issue is that the court can’t use a program to automate parking tickets because the city has a parking bureau, not an autonomous parking authority, she said.

Senior Center Director Sharron Brown said work on a new center is going well. The center is being constructed at no cost to the city by developer Glen Fishman. It will occupy the ground floor of a new building at 400 East Front Street that will have 63 market-rate condos on three upper floors. A review of records reduced the number of members from 1,900 to 1,600, but new members are joining all the time, Brown said.

Bilingual Day Care Center Director Eva Rosas-Amirault said the program operates almost entirely with outside funding. City Administrator Marc Dashield said there has been a decrease, but the city is looking for other sources. The program has won 11 state and national awards and over 29 years has become a mainstay for working families, Rosas-Amirault said.

Dudley House Director Steve Holmes won praise from the council for the results of the substance abuse program, but its future is in doubt despite the good it does in turning lives around. Past and present clients have come out in force to recent council meetings to call for its continuance, but the facility needs to be made handicapped-accessible to meet new licensing rules. Without a license, Dudley House faces loss of public funding. The staff of five has received layoff notices while the city seeks a solution to the dilemma.

The next budget meeting is from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 30 in City Hall Library. Budget documents may be examined in the City Clerk’s office at City Hall, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia


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