Joseph Cavanaugh had an unenviable job at Friday’s tax sale. He was the spotter.
And to be spotter, Cavanaugh had the best seat in City Council Chambers – the seat of City Council President Donna Travis.
But Cavanaugh didn’t wield a gavel or read from a docket.
His role was unscripted and his decision irrevocable.
In front of Cavanaugh, on the council floor, City Treasurer David Olsen, retired Tax Collector Ken Mallette and City Solicitor Peter Ruggiero sat at a long table. They faced an audience of more than 100.
In measured tones, Olsen read the plat and lot number of each property being auctioned for the amount due in unpaid property taxes or water and sewer bills. That was followed by an amount, which in some cases was less than $300.
The audience anxiously followed each word. Some sat on the edge of their seats, just waiting for Olsen to say the dollar amount. And as soon as he did, like Jack-in-the-boxes, their arms shot up in the air. Each held a number that they had been given earlier when registering for the sale and Cavanaugh’s task was to pick the one he spotted first.
“It was like throwing meat to the wolves,” Cavanaugh said yesterday.
Although instructions were explicit, Cavanaugh said many of the registered bidders didn’t wait to wave their numbers. He said he disregarded those people and picked those who followed instructions.
“There was no time to look at faces, just look at the numbers. It was that fast,” he said.
Indeed, Cavanaugh didn’t dawdle nor did Olsen and Mallette. In about two hours, they had run through 101 properties with unpaid taxes and another 183 with unpaid utility bills. There were no bidders on a few properties, in which case they stayed with the city.
The list could have been much longer.
When initially established earlier this summer, the list numbered 2,700 properties. By Monday, that was reduced to about 900 as a result of payment or payment plans made in the interim and by the administration’s decision to remove 150 properties listed for non-payment of sewer assessments. By Thursday, another 300 were removed and, on Friday morning, with the line stretching out the door of the City Hall Annex, about 300 more property owners averted a sale.
Those whose property was auctioned can still redeem it.
Under the provisions of the sale, the winning bidder – the one Cavanaugh spotted and called out – had to pay the city the amount due in taxes or utilities by 4:30 that afternoon. That was later extended because of the number of properties. After payment, the bidder has a lien on the property and the owner has six months to repay the amount with 10 percent interest. After that, the rate increases 1 percent per month up to a year, at which point the lien holder-bidder can initiate foreclosure proceedings in the court.
As of yesterday, with payments still being made, about $1.3 million was collected.
This was one of the largest city tax sales in recent times.
In part, the economy was blamed for the volume of delinquent payments. An additional explanation is that, unlike last year, when only properties with unpaid taxes were sold, unpaid utility bills were added to the sale this year.