Berrien foreclosure numbers tell two stories

Bret Witkowski

ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County’s land auction book, now available through the treasurer’s office and website, is a tale of two counties.

It’s the best of times, because the number of foreclosed properties remains well below the record numbers of a few years ago.

This is largely due to Treasurer Bret Witkowski’s efforts to get owners who are behind on their taxes into payment plans. This keeps people in their homes and saves the county money in administering and maintaining foreclosed lots.

The number of properties in payment plans is up about 8 percent from last year, at 863, from 748 at this time last year. That accounts for almost 8 percent of the properties in Berrien County.

Witkowski worries about what would happen if the worst of times returns.

“My biggest concern is the economy. What happens if we go through another recession?” Witkowski said. “What more can we do?”

The county forecloses on properties when the owners are three years behind on their taxes, and those properties are made available at two annual auctions.

This year’s auctions will be held July 30 and Sept. 17 at the DANK, 2651 Pipestone Road, with bidder registration from 8-9:30 a.m. and the sale commencing at 9:30 a.m. A bidder deposit of $500 is required.

There are 258 properties listed in the guide, along with 43 condominium units at New Harbor Condominiums at 655 Riverview Drive in Benton Harbor. Witkowski hopes that one bidder will buy all of the condos.

The number of properties is up from last year’s 183, but below the 455 of a few years ago. This year’s list includes 36 homes (also up from last year) and 54 properties acquired by the county Land Bank Authority and available for a minimum bid of $250.

There is a large number of vacant lots available this year. There also are several abandoned homes, including five in Niles Township and one in the city of St. Joseph. The St. Joseph home, at 317 N. Veronica Court, has an assessed value of $102,200 and a minimum bid of $15,407. A 17-acre lot on Spring Hill Road in Coloma Township has an assessed value of $32,600 and a minimum bid of $3,166.

A lot on M-63, across from the Whirlpool Corp. headquarters, is on the auction block and is valued at $200,000, Witkowski said.

A number of properties available have been slated for demolition. Benton Harbor requested only two demolitions this year, which Witkowski sees as a plus.

In the case of abandoned homes, in many instances residents would be able to stay in their homes if they arranged for a payment plan, the treasurer said.

The treasurer’s office sends text messages twice a month to property owners who are behind on their payments, as well as voice messages. The county’s information technology department automated the tax payment program, cutting staff hours by 80 percent.

The treasurer’s office pre-tags buildings with orange notices warning that a property was in danger of foreclosure, spurring owners to make arrangements for payments. Local banks offer savings accounts that allow property owners to set aside money for when the tax bill arrives. Banks are sending letters to customers encouraging homeowners to talk to the treasurer about payment plans.

Another uncertainty is a case before the Michigan Supreme Court, expected to be decided this year. Property owners in Oakland County claim tax foreclosures are unconstitutional seizures because governments sell properties for more than the back taxes owed and keep the profits. Class action suits have been filed on other counties, including Berrien, on the same grounds.

Witkowski has previously stated that Berrien County loses money on three out of four foreclosures. The Berrien County auction book includes the summer tax bill list.

For information on payment plans and a copy of the land book, visit www.berriencounty.org or call 983-7111, Ext. 8569.

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