Dane County Treasurer Stresses Private Property Rights

MacIver News Service | November 20, 2012

[Madison, Wisc…] Dane County might have a reputation for treating property tax payers as an afterthought, but throughout the last three years’ of economic hardship, the county has not seized anyone’s home for delinquent taxes.

With some of the highest property taxes in the country (the nonpartisan Tax Foundation consistently places Dane County in the top 70 of 1,823 counties), one might suspect the county doesn’t want to give up on all that money it’s owed. However, the out-going treasurer, David Worzala, says for him it’s about private property rights.

“Private property rights are strong and they need to be,” Worzala told the MacIver News Service. “I’m a pretty strong property rights person, as I’ve learned in this job.”

Dane County begins the foreclosure process after a property owner has gone three years without paying their taxes. Every year, the county starts the process on 700 to 900 parcels. Worzala and his staff contact each homeowner to find out what their individual situation is and how they can resolve the issue.

The county only seized five to 10 properties last year, and none at all during the two years before that. What’s more–all seized properties were vacant land. Although he believes in private property rights, Worzala is still the county treasurer.

“You can’t just take people’s property away,” he said. But, “part of the responsibility of owning a home is paying the taxes. Whether taxes are too high is another issue.”

Besides its own revenue needs, Dane County has another incentive to push the collections. Municipal governments and school districts still get their revenue, whether their residents are paying property taxes or not. That’s because the county is responsible for collecting and distributing the funds. It has to pay those smaller governments regardless of what comes in.

As of the end of October, Dane County is owed $16.8 million in delinquent taxes. Only 15 percent of that amount constitutes unpaid property taxes. The rest of it, over $14 million, is money Dane County had to pay out to other governments.

Worzala says people are slowly paying off their delinquent taxes, and that the $16.8 million figure is coming down.

“It’s getting better,” he said. “We have probably weathered the storm as long as the economy holds.”

Worzala will be stepping down as County Treasurer next year after choosing not to t run for reelection. He instead ran in the Democrat primary for Senator-Elect Tammy Baldwin’s congressional seat. State Representative Mark Pocan won that election.