Franklin County Courthouse

Franklin County is trying to figure out what to do with land it owns that nobody wants.

The county has paused the sale of all formerly tax delinquent properties it owns to reassess whether the tax revenue it gets from selling the land is worth the amount it pays to prepare it for sale.

“I think we need to revisit this again because of the cost to the county,” Franklin County Commissioner Dave Hinson said in moving to table a motion to sell four lots in the Lake St. Clair subdivision for $604. “I know it’s getting back on the tax rolls, but what’s a lake property bring, $20, $30 a year?”

Commissioners didn’t vote on several other land sales on the agenda at Tuesday’s meeting and discussed the issue further with County Collector Doug Trentmann and Franklin County Title Vice President Richard Wurdack at their Thursday workshop.

The county puts property up for sale after three years of delinquent taxes; it must then be offered at the annual tax sale another three years. It then goes on the county’s conveyed list, where it is owned by the county, and people can make an offer to county commissioners to purchase it. Trentmann said his office puts $150 a year in collectors fees on each parcel, or $450 for three years “to recoup title searches, advertising, mailing, everything else that we put into it.” 

In addition, the title company charges a 10 percent fee.

“We sell the son of a gun for $50 or whatever, we’re still out $450, we’re minus five bucks to you,” Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker told Wurdack. “So $455 we’re in the hole for getting this thing back on the tax roll.”

Commissioners discussed possibly changing the county’s minimum bid requirement, currently $150 per parcel, but many properties do not sell despite being available at prices lower than that as far back as the 1940s.

The county was able to sell one such property this year. The property, owned by the county since the 1940s, is located on the side of a bluff along a creek in New Haven, Trentmann said, and is so small it isn’t measured in acreage, which goes out three decimal places. It sold for $22.02, with back taxes of $2.36.

That leaves a property in Piney Park Terrace, a wooded area south of St. Clair, as the one lot the county has owned since the 1940s. It has an asking price of $2.36. But, like a number of the properties, it isn’t accessible by road.

“It’s in the middle of the woods,” Trentmann said. “You’ll have to hire a surveyor to go look for it.”

One problem is people are circumventing the county’s sale process by waiting until after the county’s annual tax sale in August, so they can get the land cheaper by making an offer to commissioners lower than the collector’s asking price, Trentmann said.

The properties are mostly located near lakes and were purchased as weekend retreats decades ago, Trentmann said.

Many of the properties are not worth much, Wurdack said. Many also are small lots, around 100 feet by 50 feet.

“They aren’t even worth $150, some of them,” he said. “The reason they get on there, people don’t pay their taxes, is because they bought it in the ’60s. Their kids get it. Their kids can’t sell it. The kids are looking at the tax bill going, ‘I just won’t pay it.’ ”

Some lots sell in the thousands of dollars, and the more desirable ones are bought quickly, Trentmann said. Anything with a “significant structure” sells fast.

The best thing for the properties is for them to be purchased by adjoining property owners, Wurdack said.

Some of the properties have issues like being on a hill or having a burned-out building on them, Wurdack said. 

“They’re a mess is what they are,” he said. 

People who have their property purchased in the third year of tax delinquency have 90 days to buy the property back with back taxes plus 10 percent interest, Trentmann said.

The issue came to the forefront again at a March 30 meeting of county commissioners, when Hinson moved to reject a land sale at a low price to the Lake St. Clair board of trustees. The other commissioners agreed to reject the sale.

Hinson said the Lake St. Clair trustees have been selling the land they buy from the county for 1,000 percent above the purchase price.

In a letter to The Missourian, the Lake St. Clair board argued that the people who don’t pay property taxes also don’t pay homeowner’s association assessments. But they said the county tells people who buy the tax defaulted lots that they don’t have to pay the HOA liens, which the Lake St. Clair attorney disagrees with and said is an undecided matter.

“Rather than contest the purchase in a quiet title suit our board has found it more expedient and less costly to acquire these properties by bidding on them from Franklin County and then reselling them in order to recoup the back, unpaid assessments,” the board wrote.