In mid-July, longtime Harker Heights residents George and Julieanna Tineo had a law enforcement officer come to the door.
They’d been served, the result of a three-year rough spot that left them unable to pay their Bell County property taxes.
But the Tineos have a couple of procedural steps to go through before their house is foreclosed on.
“We’re in the tax collecting business, not the real estate business,” said Harvey Allen, attorney for the Appraisal District of Bell County.
So far this year, 321 lawsuits were filed in Bell County for unpaid property taxes from businesses and property owners, including homeowners like the Tineos. That’s nearly 50 fewer cases than last year, despite some cities’ rising property appraisal values and increasing taxes.
Meanwhile, the rate of tax collections is on track to match collections in previous years.
In 2013, the Appraisal District of Bell County collected 98.18 percent of all levied taxes in Bell County. As of July 1, Bell County had about $6.08 million in delinquent taxes outstanding from the 2013 tax year.
According to numbers from 2011, compiled after most lawsuits were settled, the district collected 99.59 percent of the year’s levied taxes, nearly $305.22 million.
That might sound like a lot — and it is — but the appraisal district collects for 31 taxing entities, including 11 cities, 11 school districts, two college districts, six special districts and the county. The taxing district deals with more than 160,000 taxable properties, officials said.
Of the 532 properties posted for sale because of overdue taxes since Aug. 2, 2011, only about half of them were actually sold.
“Most sold were vacant, abandoned houses, rental properties and vacant lots,” Allen said, referring to the 252 sold.
The district files lawsuits against residents for delinquent property taxes after a variety of factors, officials said, but the amount of taxes owed and how long they have been overdue are the main reasons.
“If someone owes $10,000 compared to $1,000, we’re going to go after the $10,000 one first,” Allen said.
Taxes are considered outstanding in February if they have yet to be paid for the previous calendar year, Allen said. The district sends out several written notices to residents beginning in May. After three notices, the district hands the list of delinquent taxable properties to their legal team, which files a portion of the lawsuits against property owners every month with the district court.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Julieanna Tineo, speaking of her tax situation. “We’ve never had to go there, to be in debt.”
The Tineos, who owed about $2,000 in back taxes for three years now, said they are trying to pay the taxes from their limited retirement income, but it’s hard to keep up with the added interest and court costs.
George Tineo also recently had a heart attack, giving them more medical bills.
“It goes up to $600 for next year,” she said, saying the debt makes her feel likes she’s drowning sometimes. “I never thought I’d have to sell my house for $2,000.”
There are a couple of ways residents can work with officials to resolve their outstanding taxes before suits are filed, Allen said. Payment plans are available before and after lawsuits are filed, although there is additional interest added to the outstanding taxes and court costs if suits are filed, he said.
“If something happens, and you’ve got to take care of your car to get to work or something, just call and let us know ... but what often happens is that after two payments are made, (property owners) stop paying,” Allen said, referring to their experience with residents on payment plans.
Even after the property is posted for sale, however, the district allows property owners to pay half of their delinquent taxes and then pay the other half with a payment plan.
There also are cases that may be considered “hardship cases,” where district attorneys will forgive or set the terms of repayment.
So far in 2014, district judges have made 81 rulings in the 321 suits filed. On average, those in debt owe about $3,200 in outstanding taxes.