By Chris Joyner and M.B. Pell
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Legislation that would change the way Fulton County handles property tax liens gained a powerful new ally when House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones discovered this spring that a lien had been placed on her Milton home over an $88 late fee.
Fulton County filed a lien against Jones and her husband, Kalin, on their home in December for the charges and sold it a few weeks later to Vesta Holdings, a private company that collects on tax liens.
Jones said her husband mixed up the due dates on two tax bills, inadvertently paying the Fulton County bill a week late. But she said the check was cashed and they were never informed their payment was late until much later, when they heard from Vesta about the charges.
“It is very frustrating. We’ve never received a tax lien in our lives,” Jones, R-Milton, said.
Jones said she has paid the lien but is upset that the county didn’t notify her of the lien or its decision to sell it to a private company.
“They can afford the postage on a lien, but they can’t afford to service their customers,” she said.
Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand said his office notified Jones of the lien and the system worked as intended.
“I don’t think this should be a big issue for her because she paid her taxes, albeit late, and it was resolved,” Ferdinand said. “It was a very small fee for an admittedly late payment.”When a company purchases a lien, it can usually add an initial 10 percent penalty and then a penalty of 1 percent a month after that. These are the same penalties municipalities are allowed to charge. In Jones’ case, Vesta bought the lien for $87.98 Dec. 22, 2010. It cost Jones $104.62 to satisfy the lien, on March 3.
The alternative, Ferdinand said, would have been for Fulton County to begin foreclosure proceedings against Jones.
Poor residents also benefit from the sale of liens because companies that purchase overdue bills can set up payment plans with taxpayers, the tax commissioner said.
“I would be very disappointed if the Legislature takes this ability away from people who are less fortunate and don’t have the ability to pay,” Ferdinand said.
But taxpayers who have had their liens sold often complain the county does not make a concerted effort to contact them about their outstanding bills, knowing it can collect the money by selling the liens.
Taxpayers who claim the county did not contact them typically do not receive notification from their lien purchaser until two months later, as required by law. By this time the lien purchaser has added the 10 percent penalty and a point a month in additional penalties.
Now that she has been on the receiving end of one of these liens, Jones said she will take a personal interest in Senate Bill 234 when the General Assembly reconvenes for the 2012 session. The measure would prohibit counties from selling tax liens until a bill is 60 days overdue and prohibit counties from selling a lien for a bill that has been appealed. SB 234 unanimously passed the Senate in March but stalled in the House.
“The AJC has written about this for years, but I guess nobody brought it to my attention,” she said. “When you experience something you realize it’s more than just me. It has to be happening to Fulton County residents across the county.”
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, who introduced the bill, said he’s glad to have Jones’ support.
“Now that she’s seen firsthand what these private companies and what Fulton County can do to the taxpayer, she understands how important this is,” Rogers said. “There are a lot of taxpayers who get a raw deal when Fulton County is in cahoots with a private company.”