Story originally appeared on the Detroit News.
Highland Township— Leo Ortkras has lived in his home off Duck Lake for 37 years, rebuilding the dilapidated cottage he purchased on a land contract and turning it into what he calls “a nice little piece of property on the lake.”
On Monday, Ortkras’s home will go up for auction through Oakland County because he failed to pay back taxes on the property. Ortkras says that would be understandable, except he has the money to pay and the county won’t take it now that he’s missed the deadline.
“I’m going to lose my home and all the equity in the house because I owe $12,400,” said Ortkras, a concrete contractor. “It’s something I’ve worked my whole life for and they are just going to take it.”
According to state law, Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner is doing exactly what he must, but that has prompted some people to question whether the law needs to be changed.
Meisner says his office contacted Ortkras no less than 10 times in the past two years, even offering him a $25 a month payment plan. After paying off back taxes for 2009, Ortkras never accepted a payment plan for outstanding taxes he owed for 2010 onward, Meisner said.
Ortkras says he didn’t know about the payment plan program and that he was notified in April that he had failed to pay the taxes on his 1,186-square-foot property with an assessed value of $83,340. Three weeks ago, a sign appeared on his lawn declaring the property up for auction.
Ortkras has a history of several federal and state liens being placed against his property dating to 1997, money woes he attributes to the economy.
“I haven’t done any new construction in six years,” he said. “I used to make a lot of money doing it, but the economy’s been terrible for building.”
County treasury officials are required by law to follow through on auctioning properties to recoup unpaid taxes and fees.
For most delinquent owners, foreclosure becomes official on March 31 following three years of unpaid taxes, at which point the homeowner has no more right to the property. . To prevent situations like the one Ortkras is facing, Oakland County has offered payment plans to homeowners who know they are at risk but want to save their homes.
“I understand that there have to be deadlines, but if the deadline is April 1, you should allow the homeowner to pay up until the last minute of the auction,” said Oakland County Commissioner Bob Hoffman, R-Highland, who is working with Ortkras.
Meisner said he has been a proponent of allowing county treasurers more flexibility in the state law, but his hands are tied.
“If we think this is a genuine issue, we don’t talk to the guy whose job it is to administer the law,” he said. “We have to talk to lawmakers.”
Ortkras isn’t the only owner listed on the deed. He bought it with a woman he was living with at the time, Mary Lynne Havey, who now spends most of the year in Florida but also has a house in White Lake Township. She says she was never notified of the sale from the county and can’t believe the house would be up for auction.
“I’ve seen the commercials with Andy Meisner talking about the auctions and how you can get your dream home,” she said. “But what they don’t tell you is you get these houses on somebody else’s bad luck.”
Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz recently changed his office’s policy, which had allowed taxes to be paid up to the point of sale. Dearborn Heights sued the treasurer after being denied the right to purchase a foreclosed property on South Beech Daly last year, but lost a Wayne County Circuit Court ruling in the case earlier this year.
Oakland County will auction off properties in townships and villages on Monday, property in cities on Tuesday and properties specifically in Pontiac on Wednesday. According to a listing with the county, there are 1,073 properties for sale in the auction. Ortkras and Havey are prohibited from bidding on the property, which requires a minimum bid of $12,211.
In the meantime, Ortkras and Havey are working with lawyers to try to get a judge to halt the sale, but they don’t have much hope.
“I don’t want to lose my home,” said Ortkras. “It’s a very nice house and I take care of my property. I’ve just been trying to get by.”
Meisner said the county “doesn’t want anybody’s property.”
“We want to promote homeownership,” said Meisner. “Ultimately what it comes down to is if people take responsibility and follow the rules.”
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