City wants tax bureau to make sale rule changes

Officials want to eliminate ‘bad actors’ before they bid

City officials have been trying to persuade the Blair County Tax Claim Bureau to make policy changes to deter irresponsible buyers at tax sales.

The county’s response has been less than enthusiastic so far, according to City Manager Marla Marcinko, speaking at a recent meeting of the city’s Blight Action Team.

The most significant change the city is seeking is a preregistration requirement for judicial sales — the ones that wipe out most liens and are thus more attractive — to eliminate “bad actors” before they have a chance to bid.

Based on the current policy, the bureau eliminates those bad actors after they’ve bought the properties — although before deed transfers, according to Marcinko.

“The idea is to do it in advance,” said action team consultant Winnie Branton.

It would be a more efficient way to ensure that blighted properties don’t go to buyers who simply flip them for a profit or let them deteriorate further, officials indicated.

The proposed preregistration rule would require potential bidders to sign affidavits affirming that tax sale purchases wouldn’t place them in violation of the Real Estate Tax Sale Law, which prohibits transfer of tax sale properties to individuals whose landlord license has been revoked by a municipality in the county; who are delinquent in paying property tax in the county; who are behind on municipal utility bills by more than a year; who are facing serious outstanding code violations; or who are already the owner of the property they’re trying to buy, according to a sheet distributed at the meeting by Marcinko.

The city also is recommending a bidder registration fee, which would be refunded to those who actually show up at tax sales, to help ensure that participants are serious.

The city also proposed alternatives to preregistration, in case the county rejects the idea: that the bureau accept from the city a list of property owners who — if they were to bid — would be in violation of the RETSL; that the bureau require winning bidders to sign an affidavit on the day of sale affirming they’re not in violation of the tax sale law; and that the county’s tax sale advertisements warn potential bidders of properties that have been condemned and of the proposed affidavit requirement.

Perhaps city representatives could attend tax sales to alert buyers about maintenance issues, Branton said.

The county has seemed receptive to that suggestion, said city Codes and Inspections Department Director Rebecca Brown.

The city could send a representative to the next sale as a test, Branton said.

Half a dozen buyers in recent times had no idea what was wrong with properties they were trying to buy, Brown said.

The bureau might be reluctant to adopt some of the proposed new policies for fear they could make it harder to dispose of properties, which is a core function of the bureau, Brown said.

“We don’t want to make waves with the county,” she said.

Selling the maximum number of properties may be good for the short-term, but getting properties into the hands of good developers, even if it takes a while, is better for the long term, said Steve McKnight, action team member and CEO of the Altoona-Blair County Development Corp.

Blair County solicitor Nathan Karn said through his secretary that he wasn’t comfortable talking about the city requests at this time, because discussions were ongoing.

According to the handout, the city’s suggestions are based on recommendations from the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania’s “From Blight to Bright” handbook, which states, “by limiting eligible bidders at tax sale, the municipality can limit potential new owners to those likely to care for their properties.”

The city isn’t asking for “crazy process changes,” Branton said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.