A pilot program aimed at helping Douglas County homeowners with delinquent property taxes is now available.
The Property Tax Revolving Loan Program offers low-interest loans of up to $5,000 to low and moderate income homeowners in six counties on a first-come, first-served basis. Made possible with a $75,000 grant and administered by the Foundation for Rural Housing, the program will run for two years.
Douglas County Treasurer Carol Jones started mailing out information on the program in August to taxpayers who are behind on payments. She also set up a display outside the treasurer’s office about the loans.
“It rolled out, basically, last week,” she said, and funding is limited.
To qualify for the loan program, applicants must own their home free and clear, with no mortgage or lien; it must be their primary residence and titled in their name; they must have a source of income to pay the loan and taxes going forward, as well as a credit score above 580; and they must make below 80% of county median income.
The interest rate on the loans varies between 3% and 6%. That’s a big reduction from the interest rate delinquent taxes can rack up. Interest and penalties on delinquent property taxes accrue at 1-1.5% per state statute, according to the State Treasurer's Office. In Douglas County, it's 1%.
“So that’s 12% that we charge annually, as opposed to 3-4%, so that’s a great reduction for the taxpayers," Jones said.
When homeowners find themselves losing ground on property taxes, they may not be able to access help through traditional routes such as banks.
“Maybe this will help them catch up on their taxes because they might not qualify for some of the bank loans and other sources of assistance," Jones said.
Applications can be made on the foundation’s website or by contacting the Douglas County Treasurer’s office. Contact the Foundation for Rural Housing at (888) 400-5974 or email email@example.com.
Tax deed properties decline
The program is rolling out at a time when the number of county tax deed properties — properties that owe three years of taxes and are in danger of foreclosure — is declining. In August 2018, there were 375 tax deed properties in Douglas County. That number dropped to 350 in 2019 and 300 in 2020. When Jones sent out letters two weeks ago, it was 190. As of Tuesday, Aug. 24, the figure was down to 181.
Of those properties, 112 are improved properties (homes, businesses or rental units). The average amount owed on tax deed properties for the most recent delinquent year is roughly $1,700.
The dip in threatened properties is due, in part, to communication.
"We worked really hard. We send out statements every month; we call people. One of my staff members has been calling quite a few of the ones and telling them, you know, we’re going to charge $75 come Sept. 1 for the abstract charges, and so they pay it before they get those additional charges," Jones said.
The names and addresses of tax deed properties are published in January and September.
"It is not a wall of shame," Jones said. "We are often looking for people that we can’t find."
Certified letters are sent out to mortgagers, mortgagees and owners in December. Payment plans are available, and Jones provides information about other options, such as the loan program, in displays and mailings.
Dollars and cents
Currently, property owners owe $3.4 million in unpaid taxes to Douglas County, as well as about $434,000 in interest, according to Jones. Of that $3.4 million, $2 million is owed on 2020 taxes alone, along with $161,000 in interest.
The reasons people fall behind vary.
"I think a lot of them maybe have lost your job or come into some situation — their income may have changed, they may become elderly — and then they stop paying things because they can’t afford it. Their house is getting older. They have to replace their furnace. I mean, there’s many, many (reasons) why they fall behind," Jones said.
Early contact is stressed. The treasurer's office starts sending out notices about the prior year's unpaid taxes in March, although statute only requires them to be sent out in September.
Some people appreciate the reminder and others get upset at themselves because they forgot to pay their taxes, Jones said. Making the calls earlier than her office is required to by law helps her staff members have a better relationship with community members.
“If you don’t do that (call before September) you’re just letting them accrue interest," she said.
The message is simple.
"That they do have taxes due and we are open 12 months of the year, and we take tax payments all year long, not just in January and July," Jones said.
The result is more taxes being paid, she said.
In addition to the new loan program, other assistance is available for those struggling to pay tax debt.
The Foundation for Rural Housing offers a Critical Assistance Grant, which provides up to $1,000 for rental, deposit, mortgage, utility or property tax assistance for those who make less than 50% of the county median income.
The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority offers low interest loans between $1,000 and $5,000 to homeowners who are 65 and older.
The Veterans Administration can provide tax assistance to veterans who are 100% disabled.
Payment plans are also available through the treasurer's office. Currently, there are 50 active payment plans in the county covering 105 parcels. Of those, 12 have less than a year to pay. Already this year, eight property owners have finished their plans and caught up on their taxes.
“It’s not my intent to take their property, but to just collect the taxes," Jones said. "These payment plans do help many people.”
People from all income brackets qualify for payment plans, but they should be two years in arrears or more. Visit the Douglas County Treasurer's website, contact the office at 715-395-1348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about assistance options. Taxes can be paid online, by mail or at the office in the Douglas County Courthouse.