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Berrien County: 4,000 properties at risk of foreclosure

Published 12:31am Thursday, February 23, 2012

About 4,000 properties in Berrien County are at risk of going into the tax forfeiture and foreclosure process.

These properties are going into the third year of a three-year foreclosure process that can end with the owners losing possession of the real estate.

“The interest and fees go up dramatically going into the third year,” said County Treasurer Bret Witkowski.

“It’s not uncommon for a bill to double in that three years.”

Witkowski is encouraging property owners with delinquent taxes to start a payment plan with the treasurer’s office as soon as possible. His office has sent out about 10,000 letters notifying people of pending forfeitures, now about a week away.

Increasing risk

The number of letters sent out is up 40 percent from last year, and the 4,000 properties at risk of forfeiture is up from 2,500 parcels at this time a year ago.

“It’s been a trend going up since 2008,” Witkowski said. “I keep hoping this is the worst of the worst.”

Witkowski says people overextending themselves on investment properties and elderly people dealing with health issues are most commonly at risk of forfeiture. He said he has also noticed a number of out-of-town banks refusing to pay.

Payment plans offered

Property owners in this position are asked to contact the treasurer’s office for help with a payment plan.

More than 400 people are currently in the program, which allows them to make monthly payments until the tax bills are paid off.

Witkowski said about 90 percent of the people in the program have been able to catch up on their tax bill and keep their property.

There are properties at risk of forfeiture in nearly every municipality in the county, and the city of Niles has some areas with a number of properties in that position.

“Traditionally, Niles city has the third or fourth most foreclosures,” Witkowski said.

“Niles Township is usually within the top 10.”

Last year, the treasurer’s office foreclosed on a total of 310 properties, and 405 were withheld because they were on payment plans.

Properties with unpaid 2010 taxes on March 1 will be forfeited to the county treasurer. The owners keep possession of the real estate, but foreclosure can occur if taxes aren’t paid by March 31, 2013.

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