Editor’s note: At readers’ requests that this editorial reach the widest local readership possible, it is being reprinted from the Hometown Oneonta & Freeman’s Journal editions of Sept. 15-16.
It’s time to bring Maria Ajello’s ordeal to an end, to end an unpleasantness – an injustice, even – that has been simmering for 24 months now, as she reminded the Otsego County Board of Representatives at its September meeting on the 7th.
On Aug. 20, 2014, the date of the Otsego County treasurer’s annual auction of tax-delinquent properties at the Holiday Inn on Oneonta’s Southside, Mrs. Ajello arrived with payment of the $6,700 owed, plus an additional $2,299 in interest charges.
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She was ready to pay the $8,999 total she owed on a house and 74 acres at 104 Filburn Road, hamlet of Monticello, Town of Richfield.
Due to a policy still in place, the payment was denied, and the house and land auctioned off for $75,000, plus the auctioneer’s 10 percent fee, a total $82,500. So the County of Otsego garnered a profit of $65,001 – 650 percent – on the $8,999 total back taxes and penalties.
The new owner, who bought the property for $75,000, then put the house and one acre on the market for $169,000, (and keeps 73 acres). So Mrs. Ajello, in effect, lost more than $169,000 in assets because her $8,999 check wasn’t accepted, money that – she is in her early 60s – she likely cannot recoup.
Mrs. Ajello should have paid her taxes on time. But a 650-percent profit for the county, leaving the homeowner with nothing? Unseemingly is the word that comes to mind.
Since Aug. 20, 2014, Mrs. Ajello has appeared at every monthly meeting of the county Board of Representatives, pleading, often tearfully, for the representatives to return her property. “Do you know what it’s like to shame myself, every month?” she asked in an interview the other day, and again tears flowed.
She acknowledges she fell behind on taxes and is willing to cover what she owed, plus penalties. She only challenges the severity of her punishment.
If the monthly appearances have been excruciating for Mrs. Ajello, so have they been for the county reps – you can tell by the expression on many of their faces. It has been excruciating for the audience, citizens of Otsego County; their representatives’ actions reflect on them. You can see it on their faces.
Look at the faces of the out-of-county visitors watching the monthly ordeal – from Solar City, from the Laberge Group, from the Onondaga County purchasing director, and many more. Are they thinking: What kind of place is Otsego County?
How did Mrs. Ajello get so far behind?
The slippages began when her husband, Ken, died in 2009 at age 59; a Vietnam veteran, his early passing may have been the result of Agent Orange exposure. As the widow explains it, she was immobilized, stopped opening her mail or tending her affairs, and the tax bills – among others – mounted up.
Anyone who has suffered personal tragedy without a support system can understand what happened. Anyone who hasn’t may be unable to. But it’s a fairly common reality.
Bob Force, the other taxpayer who has challenged the taking (of property in Gilbertsville) was undergoing a knee replacement while his wife was fighting multiple sclerosis when he got in arrears. Life happens, and it can be challenging.
County Rep. Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, this year knocked on the door of every one of his constituents on the delinquent list, and helped a widow who otherwise would have found herself in Mrs. Ajello’s predicament.
There are other issues Ajello and Ahrens have raised: Should county employees be allowed to bid on delinquent properties? Should the transfer of property have been voted on by the full board, as always happened in the past, instead of transferred by quick-claim deed?
Those issues can be argued separately. The unseemly profiteering alone is sufficient for the county Board to revisit the Ajello case.
Let it be emphasized: It hasn’t been shown that anyone at the county did anything wrong.
County Treasurer Dan Crowell set a deadline in advance so that buyers wouldn’t be disappointed by properties being pulled off the list at the last minute. Over time, he argued, disappointed buyers mean less participation and less revenue. He’s got a point.
As County Attorney Ellen Coccoma affirmed from the dais at the meeting on the 7th, the county is legally empowered to do everything it did. No doubt she’s right.
And, yes, there should be penalties for tax delinquency, and there are. But to throw people who want to pay their taxes out of their homes and erase their net worth over a relative pittance – $8,999 is one/10,000th of the county’s $90 million budget – is unworthy of the power and majesty of the County of Otsego. Citizens of good will don’t support that.
Let’s close the door on it.
One, the county board should consider forming a committee to explore the whole question of tax delinquencies – refusing to accept certified checks on the day of sale, apparently, is by no means the rule among the state’s 67 counties. Explore best practices and report back with proposed reforms.
Two, the county board should open conversations to reach common ground with Mrs. Ajello. Everything should be on the table. Short of returning her property – in the past, properties have been returned five years after a sale – would it make sense to reimburse her the amount the county received ($75,000) minus delinquent taxes and penalties ($8,999)?
To ruin people over a few thousand dollars in back taxes they are willing to pay? That’s unnecessarily punitive. Maria Ajello’s wrenching travail has gone on long enough. The county board should end it.