For the first time in 24 years, a different tax collector conducted the county’s annual sale of tax certificates on Friday, traditionally held the last Friday in May.
As a result, the process lacked the rapid-fire auctioneering style honed by Jimmy Harris over his six terms in office, as well as his distinctive comic commentary that kept the audience in good humor for what can often be a long day.
Nonetheless, in his first-ever try, Tax Collector Rick Watson, appointed by Gov. Scott in April following Harris' resignation from office, got the hang of it in short order and wrapped up selling off all 1,008 parcels by 4:15 p.m., despite a mid-morning power outage that delayed everything by a good half-hour.
Wearing a tie and jacket, in contrast to Harris’ typical polo shirt, Watson got down to business with the help of Sarah Carter, who came out of retirement to assist in the auction, as she had helped out for many years under Harris.
Watson was careful to attend to every bidder, and every increment, so that the sale initially began slowly.
“I miss him,” groused one bidder. “We’d be on about page eight by now.”
But the pace soon picked up, and the 46 buyers who came away with at least one certificate, out of the standing-room-only crowd that filled the third floor jurors room in the courthouse, appeared pleased.
In all, Watson sold off $835,132 in tax certificates, further evidence of a steady decline in both numbers and value from the $3 million peak of eight years ago.
“I think that’s because the economy’s getting better,” he said. In addition, 457 of the 1,465 tax certificates that were advertised were paid off prior to the start of the sale, further evidence of the health of the economy.
This year’s total was lower than last year, when 1,183 certificates were sold off for a total of $942,429. In 2015, 1,121 certificates sold for $865,645, and in 2014, when 1,161 tax certificates were sold off for $996,188, it marked the first time since the 2009 peak - when 1,791 certificates went for about $3 million - that the total dropped below $1 million.
In 2010, the number fell to 1,668 certificates, worth $2.36 million, and in 2011, the volume continued to shrink, to 1,585 tax certificates sold off for $1.96 million. In 2012, 1,413 certificates were sold, totaling $1.52 million, and in 2013, the number continued its decline, to slightly more than $1 million from the sale of 1,206 certificates.
The pattern at this year’s auction was in keeping with that of recent years. Rates, which start at 1.5 percent per month, or 18 percent per year, simple interest, and are bid down from there, stayed at the 18 percent mark for the first dozen parcels or so. After that active bidding drove some certificates down to about 12 percent. It wasn’t until about the 75th parcel that bidders started going below that, and from there, depending on the active pursuit of a particular certificate, it could go down as low as 4 or 5 percent, still well above what banks are paying on certificates of deposit.
Those who buy the certificates may ask for their money after 22 months, and no later than seven years, and apply for a tax deed. The delinquent taxes must be repaid to them, with interest, or they may force a sale of the property on the courthouse steps.
As required by Florida statute, the county had to assume possession of all tax deeds under $250 for homesteaded properties.
“There were some big buyers,” said Watson. “Probably six or eight people who stayed all day and who bid aggressively. There’s serious investors.”
Watson indicated he is likely to keep in place the live auction, which can be found in just 12 of the state’s 67 counties, primarily the smaller counties, with Marion the largest.
“As soon as I was appointed I started getting calls about internet sales,” he said. “I didn’t want to change anything six weeks after I got appointed.
“I will probably stick with live auctions,” Watson said. “Our situation is just so different, we have a manageable amount of delinquent taxes.”
Watson said Harris had been gracious in helping him to prepare for the sale.
“I had never done one before,” he said. “Tax collectors statewide have been very generous with their time and offering to assist me.”