This, my most recent story for the North Coast Journal

NEWS STORY / BY JOSEPHINE JOHNSON

Come Get Cash!

The county’s giving money back again and again … and again

(MARCH 8, 2012)  Ervin McCluskey and Ervin McCluskey Jr. — Humboldt County is looking for you. And it wants to give you $18,837.14.

That’s because your one-time property at 1286 Howard St. near Oceanview Cemetery in Eureka sold at a county tax auction back in October, and that’s how much money was left over after fees and back taxes were paid.

The county’s also looking for 25 other former property owners, hoping to give them excess money from tax sales.

Eventually, usually in less than a year’s time, the county tends to find the people it’s trying to reunite with small to largish chunks of cash, according to John Bartholomew, Humboldt County treasurer and tax collector.

The countyusually startsits search bysending letters of notification to the former owners and other interested parties, such as people who might have placed a lien against the property, Bartholomew said. Then legal notices are published. Most recently those notices showed up in the North Coast Journal for three weeks back in January, there for the perusal of any nerdy-hip, above average vocabulary, slight OCD-tending Journal reader who likes fine print. And the county also lists on its website the parcel numbers and the amounts it wants to hand out, but it doesn’t name names.

Both the letters and the website give instructions on how to file a claim to get your money back.

Likely, if the county owes you some money from a tax auction, things haven’t been going great with you and the taxman for the last few years.

Properties end up at tax auctions after five consecutive years of unpaid property taxes. Humboldt holds those auctions at least once a year, over the Internet, to try to get back some of the money it is owed. Once a property is sold to the highest bidder, the tax man takes his share, and the rest goes back to the former owner, if he or she can be located.

Readers who focused on the fine print in those legal ads probably noticed that along with the McCluskey’s west-side Eureka property, another in Alderpoint sold for $17,958 more than was owed. Most of the properties where owners stopped paying property taxes, though — 18 of the 26 —  were located in Shelter Cove. They sold for only $400 to $2,400 above whatever was owed to Humboldt County.

Ah, Shelter Cove and its decades-old echoes of poorly parceled land. Most likely, these properties were part of its revolving door of property default and tax sales.

Bartholomew acknowledges that some parcels in Shelter Cove should never have been approved. In 1965, developers descended upon Shelter Cove, initially dividing it into 4,189 parcels, but after heavy storms, earthquakes and constant erosion, the number of parcels is now somewhere around 3,400. It’s estimated that as much as 15 percent of those are unbuildable due to steep slope or inability to maintain a septic leech field system. Some are little more than sheer cliff face.

In the past these Shelter Cove parcels have been advertised on the Internet, targeted toward retirement-aged people and young people eager to invest in coastal California property. The land is suspiciously low-priced but enticing enough to attract folks from all over the country. Often, a parcel is purchased site-unseen.  When the new owners discover they’ve been had, some choose to re-sell and perpetuate the land debacle. Others choose to walk away. And that’s how many of the Shelter Cove properties end up at county auction. After five years of property tax non-payment, the county steps in and puts the land up for sale.

For a while, Bartholomew had been active in trying to get these properties off the tax roll in hopes of stopping the Shelter Cover revolving-land-tax-auction cycle. But the trouble is, the parcels still require upkeep like brush removal or other maintenance that state, Humboldt County or Shelter Cove agencies are unwilling to take on. Maintenance costs money, and money is in short supply these days. Says Bartholomew, “We’ve reached a stalemate on this. There’s no good way to get these parcels off the tax rolls for Humboldt County.” And so it goes … again, again and again …

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