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When truth and facts mattered

Were people being forced out of their homes by high property taxes? This was one time the truth mattered. Unsplash photo

Remembering when the facts disproved a narrative, and the narrative stopped.

“Taxes are too high. People are losing their homes because they can’t pay the high property taxes. Some people have been kicked out of the house they have lived in for 50 years because they can’t pay their property tax.”

These were the words of one of my favorite politicians that I covered when I worked for a newspaper in South Carolina.

This was the last politician that I am aware of that put truth above ideology and party. There was a time when this happened regularly. Today it would be a very radical idea.

It was 20 years ago, and a much different political climate. The anti-tax movement was just getting going. It was before the Tea Party, before the current levels of animosity in politics.

The state was very republican then just as it is now, but it was a much different climate. Republicans and democrats talked to each other, they made deals to reach solutions to problems. I had informal off-the-record lunches with both parties at the table. There was laughter, jokes, and maybe some subtle hints here and there to each other. After lunch it was back to business.

The property tax narrative

Politicians were getting on property taxes, saying they were too high. They claimed people were losing their homes because they could not pay their property taxes. Local government is financed by property taxes. State government gets its funding through other means, so it was pretty easy for the state politicians to climb on the anti-property tax wagon. They could force local governments to cut property taxes and they felt no pain because it did not take away from state revenue. Never mind that local governments were left without enough money to do things like buy police cars or ambulances.

One of my closest friends — and best contact — at the statehouse was a state senator who was pretty high up in the ranks. He was championing the anti property tax crusade. He was shouting the loudest that people were losing their homes because they could not pay their property taxes.

One day I asked him point blank, if he could tell me exactly how many people had lost their homes. He said “a lot,” but he knew I was not buying that answer.

There was a mutual respect between us. He knew he could go off the record with me, and he would not get stabbed in the back. I knew I could quote him and he would not deny having made the statement. He was really good at separating work from his personal life. We both had our jobs, and when we had a conflict, we had a conflict. When we met on the street after hours, that conflict was forgotten.

So his answer changed to “I don’t know how many.”

So I pressed on and asked him if he could give me an example of a specific person, who perhaps could be interviewed for a story.

He said he would find me one, but never did.

He didn’t mind me pressing him on claims he made. I didn’t mind him questioning my objectivity if he had a legitimate gripe. We kind of held each other accountable.

The narrative said people were losing their homes, the facts said something else.

The basic facts

I decided to do some research and find out for myself. Were people really losing their houses?

After just a little research, I realized it was fairly hard to lose your home due to delinquent property taxes. There was already a law on the books that kept you from losing it if the value went up too fast. Sometimes this happened to poor farmers when a big development went in next door. Their land was suddenly very valuable, and property taxes skyrocketed. They were protected by law.

How property is lost to taxes

Assuming you were not a victim of skyrocketing land valuations, I found it was a long process to actually lose your property. It would be years before you would be evicted.

It would only go to sale the third year after two consecutive years of non-payment. If the person makes any effort to pay, meaning even a partial payment, the clock starts ticking again.

You could in theory pay 20 bucks every year and your land would never go to a tax sale, though your bill and debt would go up.

So two years after the last payment was made, a property can be listed on a tax sale. It usually takes 6–9 months for the sale to happen then.

Even after it is sold at auction, the owner still has a year to “redeem” the property. So the buyer has to wait a year before he gets the deed cleared. To redeem it the taxes must be paid and there is a penalty.

It took essentially four years after your last missed tax deadline for you to actually lose the property. You still would not be evicted until all the paperwork and court filings were done, and that could take another year.

Bottom line. After you cannot pay your property taxes anymore, it will be almost five years before you would be evicted. Even a partial payment would restart the five-year time frame.

I gave all this information to my state senator friend. He admitted that it took a long time to actually lose your property, but he was still sure it happened, and was still sure property taxes were way to high and needed to be slashed.

The deeper dive

I kept doing research, but it got harder. You could look up a piece of property, or a person records online, but you could not look up the tax payment record. I had to do that by hand. For two weeks I looked through tax records of people who had not paid their taxes. This is public information because a list of delinquent taxpayers is published each year, and some people don’t even know they have delinquent taxes. Often people see their name on this list, go pay their taxes and it is resolved.

There were two counties in our area, and there were just shy of 700,000 people. There were well over 250,000 property owners, and at least 25,000 who had delinquent taxes over the previous five years. Of those, about 1,000 had gone to a tax sale. I had to file a Freedom of Information request on each of those cases. I had to then go through each one manually.

There are pieces of property that are “let go” by the owner. Often this is a development where there is an odd shaped piece that cannot be developed. That was the case with most of the ones that went to a sale.

The bottom line though, was over five years, in an area with 700,000 residents, I found only one legitimate case where someone lost their place of residence due to non payment of property taxes. This was an elderly lady who had no heirs, so she was essentially just giving the property up. She did live there however, until she was served with an eviction notice and then moved to a nursing home.

So basically, no one had lost their home and been kicked out because of property taxes.

I wrote my story and showed it to the state senator before it was published. He conceded that the narrative of people losing their homes due to property taxes was not true, and went on the record saying so. He never mentioned it again. He did keep saying taxes were too high, but never again made the charge that people were losing their homes.

The narrative of people losing their homes due to property taxes disappeared.

Interestingly, our relationship did not suffer at all. Facts were facts and he believed facts were more important than ideology. A week or so after the story came out we had lunch and it was not even mentioned.

Can you imagine what that would be like today?

There is the difference in journalism from then and now. Today if we investigated a narrative politicians were using, it would be dismissed. It would be called “Fake news,” or “liberal media bias.” It might even be called “faux news” depending on which way the narrative was going.

If you like this story give a comment below. The point here is not taxes or school funding, but how truth matters. You can see all my writings at www.jamesjordanstories.com

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James Jordan

James Jordan

Teller of tales, many of which are actually true. Award-winning journalist, and the William Allen White Award for reporting.

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