A man who challenged the way Mobile County handles the redemption of tax-delinquent properties appears to have given up after a protracted legal battle with county officials.
Ernest Lewis and two of his siblings tried for years to reclaim a piece of property in the Chunchula area owned by their deceased mother. In 2013, Revenue Commissioner Kim Hastie’s office placed a tax lien on the property, and that lien was then purchased by a private investor.
Tax sales allow counties to recover unpaid property taxes. In Alabama, the original owner has up to three years to pay any delinquent taxes and reclaim the property. However, Lewis says he didn’t immediately know taxes on the property were delinquent because he lives in Georgia.
When he found out, he wanted to pay off the back taxes and reclaim his mother’s property — a process he thought would be easily resolved through Hastie’s office. But when her office said it couldn’t process the redemption, Lewis took his dispute to the Mobile County Probate Court.
Three years and thousands of dollars later, Lewis decided it wasn’t worth the trouble any more.
“After careful consideration of the issues involved in the case, as well as the considerable resources [Lewis and his siblings] have already expended on this matter, [they] no longer wish to pursue the issue,” his attorney wrote in a motion to dismiss the case in January.
Lewis never disclosed what his family spent on attorneys in this case, but he’s previously said it was much more than the $1,900 in taxes he attempted to pay to reclaim the property.
In the end, a single piece of paper proved to be the stumbling block for Lewis. Since her office took over the administrative role of handling property redemptions in 2015, Hastie’s staff has relied on a “property redemption affidavit” created by the Alabama Department of Revenue (ADOR).
The document was intended to help tax assessors prove a tax sale purchaser and the party seeking a redemption agree on what, if anything, the purchaser is due to be reimbursed — typically for things like maintenance, upkeep or insurance they paid for on the property.
If the affidavit isn’t signed by both parties, though, Hastie’s office maintains it cannot file a redemption. However, Lewis says he made attempts to contact the man who purchased the tax lien on his mother’s property but received no response. He believes he was intentionally avoided.
Others have made similar claims of investors avoiding them or refusing to sign the affidavit until the three-year window had passed. Three challenges to local property redemptions were filed with the Probate Court in 2016, followed by 10 new cases in 2017 and another one in 2018.
However, an attorney with Hastie’s office told Lagniappe recently the affidavit still has to be signed by both parties in order for a local redemption to proceed.
“ADOR issued a directive to all tax collectors statewide to use the redemption affidavit as a tool for verifying payment of certain sums required by statute prior to redemption,” attorney Tyler Prichett wrote via email. “The redemption affidavit is an effective tool for determining whether or not a proposed redemption is disputed.”
Yet, the notion that ADOR requires that affidavit to be signed in every single case has been the subject of some dispute. Revenue officials in other areas, including Baldwin County, have disagreed. Even ADOR has argued otherwise in the past.
That said, it’s still appears to be a murky legal subject.
In Lewis’ case, ADOR said it made a “strong suggestion” for redemption officials to use the affidavit in a statewide memo from 2013. However, ADOR made no mention of any mandate or requirement. A recent response from ADOR spokesperson Frank Miles was equally as unclear.
“It is not necessarily required for the affidavit to be completed; however, we feel the affidavit should be completed as a judicious tool that helps county officials successfully verify that required payments have been made prior to the completion of a redemption,” Miles wrote.
Since last year, there’s been even more confusion about what role revenue officials should play in the redemption process. Attorneys representing Hastie’s office have previously challenged whether the Probate Court has the authority to resolve disputes over its property redemptions.
In 2015, a local act transferred the administrative responsibilities of the property redemption process from the Probate Court to the Revenue Commission. The intention was for the Revenue Commission to handle tax sales and the Probate Court to settle any legal disputes that arose.
Yet, in a motion seeking to dismiss Hastie from Lewis’ lawsuit last summer, Mobile County’s attorneys argued the local act didn’t differentiate between those administrative and judicial duties, and thus, the Revenue Commission should be in charge of both.
If true, that would mean Hastie’s office should have been in charge of resolving legal challenges to its own decisions — in Lewis’ case and in 14 other disputes that have been filed in Probate Court since 2016. In an order denying Hastie’s motion to dismiss on those grounds, Davis wrote that her office was not capable of — nor had it ever offered to — conduct judicial hearings.
“If Hastie’s approach was effective, Mobile County citizens would not have the same right of judicial review of redemption issues that other Alabama citizens in other Alabama counties are afforded,” Davis wrote.
While the county’s argument wasn’t successful, it has created concern the ambiguous language in the local act could lead to similar challenges in the future. Even if those weren’t successful, going through the process of hearing them could gum up an already slow legal process.
In response, Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, has introduced a short bill to clarify the roles the Probate Court and Revenue Commission are supposed to have in the redemption process. It’s already passed the House and is pending in the Senate Committee on Mobile County legislation.
Despite the arguments made in Lewis’ case, Hastie’s office and the County seem to support the legislation. Pritchett said the Revenue Commissioner’s role in the redemption process is “administrative only,” and the bill would “make the existing law more clear to taxpayers.”
“We do not have any judicial authority to resolve disputes,” he added. “If a redemptioner and tax-sale purchaser agree to the redemption, we will process it. If they do not agree, it has to be resolved by the Probate Court.”
Several attorneys involved in Lewis’ case did not respond to or declined offers to comment.
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