Councilors, residents air views on tax title taking process in Greenfield 

Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2022 6:19:51 PM

GREENFIELD — City councilors opened a dialogue with residents Tuesday evening on the tax title taking process, a practice that — in the small number of cases that lead to foreclosure — has been dubbed by critics as “home equity theft.”

“This feels like we’re being confronted with the opportunity to do some proactive thinking, and make some law that would benefit our citizens of Greenfield,” At-Large Councilor Christine Forgey said after hearing from residents at Tuesday evening’s Ways and Means Committee meeting.

Forgey said she would like the committee to meet with Mayor Roxann Wedegartner and Tax Collector Kelly Varner at its meeting next month.

Tuesday’s conversation began with the account of Mitch Speight and Joan Marie Jackson, two residents who recently went through the tax title taking process. They described the process as unethical, aggressive and, at times, confusing.

“To be dispossessed of one’s real property is more than an inconvenience — it’s an affront to one’s very dignity,” said Jackson. “These war-like aggressions from the city of Greenfield, Mass are unacceptable, unethical and will not be tolerated.”

Jackson credited their legal counsel for being able to “dismantle” the city’s attempts at confiscating full equity of their property.

In the April 15 edition of the Greenfield Recorder, 41 properties were listed in a legal notice announcing the city’s intention to take those properties “for non-payment after demand, of the taxes due thereon, with interest and all incidental expenses to the date of taking, unless the same shall have been paid before the date.”

Of the properties listed, a handful are identified as parcels of land, while others appear to be private residences, multi-family homes or commercial properties.

Varner previously explained that when a property owner doesn’t pay taxes for the previous fiscal year, the city sends a demand notice at the end of the current one. Two subsequent letters are sent after that, advising the owner to make the necessary payments to prevent the start of the tax title process.

Taxpayers often have up to a year to pay off the taxes owed, Varner noted, and the city works with property owners to set up a payment plan.

“What you heard from my neighbors was … typical of cases I’ve heard of,” commented resident Al Norman. “The common feature here, is homeowners are very confused by the process.”

Norman outlined a series of 10 suggestions for councilors to consider moving forward. Those included posting information on the city website explaining how the tax title works in Massachusetts and how Greenfield uses it; exploring options Greenfield has under Chapter 60, which outlines the collection of local taxes; sending property owners a notice of their rights more frequently; and creating a bylaw for repayment agreements.

Notably, the suggestions included developing a statement of intent that states while the city is entitled to full compensation for delinquent property taxes, Greenfield will not seek any costs from the taxpayer in excess of what they owe.

At the state level, legislators are also trying to address this. A bill, H 3053, would improve the notice procedures for people undergoing tax foreclosure proceedings and also guarantee that any excess proceeds generated by tax sales are returned to the original property owner.

Precinct 3 Councilor Virginia “Ginny” DeSorgher asked how rental properties fit into the equation.

“In my way of thinking … I also think you’re protecting the city if someone is using this as an art form or a gain, and they never intend to pay and they own multiple properties they’re not paying on,” DeSorgher said. “It’s just a question — would we be having that same rule for one person who lives in their home, as opposed to (a landlord of multiple properties)?”

Norman said the two aren’t treated any differently. In the case of landlords, he said, there should be some period of time the city uses for forbearance before starting the tax title taking process.

“The way the law works is that … the city of Greenfield is entitled by law to recoup its taxes, plus 16% interest, plus court cost, plus legal fees,” Norman said. “It’s a question of how that gets done, not if it will get done. … No one that I’ve talked to about this has ever said that we should, in any way, excuse delinquent taxes. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about taking what is owed to us to make us whole.”

In an earlier version of this article, Joan Marie Jackson was misquoted. She said, “To be dispossessed of one’s real property is more than an inconvenience — it’s an affront to one’s very dignity.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.


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