Treasurer offers options to residents who owe money

NILES — Residents in danger of losing their home to foreclosure due to unpaid property taxes are not alone in the fight to keep their property.

On Saturday, the Berrien County Treasurer’s office hosted special office hours at the Niles District Library to help people determine options to avoid losing their home to foreclosure. For those that missed the event, Bret Witkowski, the Berrien County Treasurer said it is not too late to get help. He invited those facing foreclosure to visit during office hours and discuss payment plans and local programs that can help.

Witkowski is available from 9 a.m. to noon every Tuesday at the Berrien County Courthouse in Niles. If they cannot attend on Tuesdays, people can call and set up an appointment to visit his office in St. Joseph between 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Payment plans are available for those who owe on 2016 and 2017 property taxes. Last year, more than 400 homeowners were able to avoid foreclose with help from the county. The program’s overall success rate is 92 percent, Witkowski said.

“If you’re in danger, one way obviously is a payment plan,” Witkowski said. “That is probably the best way. The other thing we encourage people to do if it is your home is to work with Step Forward.”

The Step Forward program provides financial assistance to qualifying residents facing foreclosure or tax payments.  The program pays off the debt with a no-interest loan, and in exchange, puts a lien on the resident’s property for an equivalent amount. The claim is reduced each year that the resident continues to own the home. They can call Step Forward at 1-866-946-7432 or visit Step Forward’s website.

When residents get to keep their home, it also benefits the neighborhood they reside in, Witkowski said.   

“People don’t typically like living in an area where there are a lot of foreclosures,” Witkowski said. “Typically, if a home is lost to a foreclosure, it doesn’t come back as a homestead. It comes back as a rental.”

Witkowski also advised that people can donate to programs that help residents in danger of losing their homes. The treasury office has partnered with United Way of Southwest Michigan to form the Hopeful Home Fund to benefit residents. A donation is tax deductible.

“The more money it has, the more we can help people in extreme circumstances,” Witkowski said.

Witkowski encouraged residents to talk with the treasurer’s office about the available options.

“Sometimes people have a lot of pride, and I get it, but if it comes down to losing what is likely your biggest asset, reach out,” Witkowski said. “Sometimes, it’s just easier to pay monthly.”

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