Harris County officials are going after delinquent taxpayers, some who haven’t paid up since 1984.
Mike Sullivan, Harris County tax assessor-collector, released a list of the top 10 delinquent taxpayers on Tuesday. Those homeowners and businesses owe anywhere from just over $163,000 to nearly $1 million, totalling more than $3 million.
Sullivan says 98 percent of taxpayers pay on time, but the 2 percent who don’t are depriving the county of $340 million that could be paying for emergency services, schools and colleges.
"We do everything we can to help them, but now's the time that we get tough,” Sullivan said during a press conference held Tuesday morning during county’s monthly property tax sale at the Bayou City Event Center.
Sullivan’s message: Pay up or have your home end up on the auction block.
"My goal isn't to post properties for sale,” said Sullivan. “My goal is to collect property taxes."
So why has it taken the county so long to go after these taxpayers?
"There are property owners who take advantage of the property tax system,” said Sullivan, adding that several parts of the Texas property tax code that let owners defer based on age, disability and other factors.
Staff members at the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office say the agency’s hands are tied by those deferrals and by lawsuits, sometimes with multiple property owners, which can delay the collection process several years or even decades.
Constables say often time the children of deceased parents inherit homes and don't realize they still owe taxes.
"We get all kinds of responses,” said Constable Heliodoro “Henry” Martinez of Harris County Precinct 6, referring to when his agency serves citations. “‘Oh, I didn't know, I never got the notice,’ which is OK, but from this point forward, you do need to go down and take care of your business."
Sullivan and county constables say they reach out several times by mail, phone and even make site visits to give delinquent owners every possible chance to pay up.
"We really extend ourselves to try to help those people,” said Constable May Walker of Harris County Precinct 7.
Sullivan says anyone having trouble paying should call his office at 713-274-8000 or visit their website. He says his staff can research each taxpayer’s account and see what exemptions are available.