ST. JOSEPH - Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski wants residents facing foreclosure to know that there is a way to keep their homes and lower the amount they owe at the same time.

Michigan has a Tax Foreclosure Avoidance Agreement Program, which offers a lower interest rate for those who sign up for a payment plan for back taxes.

Berrien is one of only two counties in Michigan participating, Witkowski said.

"Eight out of ten people I talk to don't know about this," Witkowski said of the new state law.

Residents who owe taxes on a homestead property are eligible, and they must pay off their 2015 back taxes and agree to a payment plan of no longer than five years.

Those who can pay down 10 percent of what they owe receive a 6 percent interest rate, compared to the 18 percent set by the state.

Those who can't make the down payment can still receive a 12 percent interest rate by agreeing to a payment plan.

For one resident Witkowski is working with, the payment agreement reduced their total debt from $6,100 to $5,200.

Wayne is the other county using the program. Berrien is helping Calhoun County set up its program, Witkowski said.

The treasurer said that other counties are relying on the higher interest payments to bolster their budgets.

"We're the opposite," he said. "We're trying to keep people out of the system."

That's getting harder to do. This year Berrien County had 320 foreclosed properties available for sale. Next year Witkowski expects to see around 500 properties on the auction block.

Ten years ago, the county offered 88 foreclosed properties for sale.

There are 4,400 properties in Berrien County on which back taxes are owed, almost the size of St. Joseph, Witkowski said. Of those, 2,000 are at risk of being foreclosed if the taxes aren't paid within four months. Many of those in trouble are senior citizens.

Properties are foreclosed on when the owners are three years behind on tax payments.

Residents are often overwhelmed by large tax bills, and are relieved to find out that they can arrange affordable monthly payments, Witkowski said.

The treasurer's office has 270 property owners on payment plans. As of Nov. 1, those owners owed $1.1 million in taxes, with an average of $4,355 owed per property.

The average monthly payment was around $300, and 92 percent had made the required payments, totalling more than $80,000 a month going to the county.

It's better to keep people in their homes as tax-paying residents supporting their communities than see them move out, leaving empty houses behind, Witkowski reasoned.

And it costs the county to manage foreclosed lots. This year the county spent around $50,000 mowing vacant lots. Title searches alone cost the county $200,000.

The treasurer's office will be sending out notices about delinquent taxes in mid-December.

In an additional effort to reach out to residents, beginning in January Witkowski will be conducting weekend hours at area libraries for people who want information on avoiding foreclosure.

The treasurer said he recognizes that it can be difficult for working people to visit his office in the administration building in St. Joseph during normal weekday hours.

The weekend hours will include two dates in Benton Harbor, which has a high percentage of foreclosed properties.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak