STEVE SPELLMAN: Homes on the auction block are a sad reminder of hard times

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 | 12:17 p.m. CDT

I attended quite an unusual spectacle on Monday, but I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.

Though sunny and blazing toward 90 degrees at 10 a.m., a crowd of a few dozen were already gathered for Boone County's annual tax certificate auction.

On the fourth Monday every August, real estate parcels that are two years overdue on their property taxes are sold on the courthouse steps to the highest bidder.

County Collector Pat Lensmeyer, who manages this process, is soon retiring after 20 years on the job, and the final auction of her career was notably sizable.

Usually only five or 10 properties are put on the auction block, but this year there were 27.

This sell-off of tax-defaulted real estate seems to bring out an fascinating contingent:  Among them, several rental home landlords, looking to add to their portfolios, and a quite sophisticated businessman with a spreadsheet of bid ranges to achieve targeted profit margins.

I observed these guys bid confidently on parcels they wanted, in their own style — nodding, raising a finger or hand, verbal calls and such.

A few couples were in the audience. They bid cautiously on one parcel, then nervously whispered to each other.

All of this made me grin warmly, recalling farm auctions with my now late grandfather.

A city employee was tracking properties where the city has an additional lien, often for nuisance ordinance costs such as lawn mowing expenses.

There were also a few non-bidding onlookers, including both candidates up for   Lensmeyer's job this November; an attorney or two; a former bank loan collector (now turned restauranteur); and yours truly.

Some properties sold for a couple thousand dollars apiece. One brought $65,000, a few were purchased just for back taxes owed, and two didn't attract any bids at all.

Throughout, I wondered how 27 properties came to be disposed in this manner. Did the previous owners lose a job, go through a hateful divorce or otherwise fall on hard times?

Or did they chose to use their limited income on food, medicine and other vital life essentials, to be left unable to pay the tax bill?

Some properties listed the owner as someone's estate, so I presume death was involved  — but did the deceased not have family to pick up the pieces? Maybe some people forgot, or moved away. Who knows?

The collector seems to know better than anybody, and she does actually seem to give a darn. Last year, she acknowledged in a statement to the press: "There are some sad stories out there... It’s the least favorite thing of my job.”

I must say that witnessing the delinquent tax property auction is not my favorite activity as a citizen, either. There was also the human drama around the courthouse in general, where a young lady within earshot lamented to her friends about a pending child custody case. She was sternly ordered by an assistant auction official to pipe down.

Seeing people's land systematically bid away in this day and age — ironically just yards from where humans were bought and sold as enslaved property some 150 years ago — was certainly unsettling.

I witnessed the unseen dark side of how we pay for schools, libraries, fire departments and the like. Every time voters approve a new or extended property tax, it may indeed help improve some public service, but we need to realize that doing so mathematically raises the hurdle for poor folks, the aged, distracted or unaware to stay in their homes.

Is there no other way?

In fact, Columbia voters may choose to raise the bar a little higher in November for police and fire enhancements.

Maybe that would be good overall, but I am concerned that lengthy tax auctions may become more common, too.

I'll find out next August.

Steve Spellman is a local financial services professional and active observer of local issues. He also hosts "The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum" each Tuesday at 5 p.m. on 89.5FM KOPN radio.

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pat fowler August 28, 2014 | 6:53 a.m.

Well stated Steve. Thank you.

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