FORT SMITH — A new online mapping feature promises to help potential buyers research tax-delinquent properties, spur competition and ultimately benefit local schools and communities across the state.
Accessible via the Commissioner of State Lands website, the mapping feature enables people to view the state’s entire catalog of tax-delinquent properties — parcels that have been turned over to the State Lands Office for collection after being delinquent for two years — and research them before attending a public auction or negotiating a sale.
The main function of the State Lands Office is to collect taxes on delinquent properties and return the properties to the tax rolls.
A delinquent owner may redeem his or her property from the county or state by paying the taxes and any penalties or interest. But if the owner isn’t located or doesn’t come forward, the state puts the property up for auction. Properties not sold at auction are offered for negotiated sale.
The entire process can take four years or more, because at each step along the way the owner could still come forward to redeem the property. In that case, the buyer would receive a refund without ever taking possession of the parcel.
State Land Commissioner John Thurston said his office collected nearly $21 million in delinquent taxes and excess funds statewide last year. Sebastian County received monthly turnback funds totaling $378,011 for 2012, and Crawford County received $475,572.
"About 80 percent of it goes to the schools," Thurston said.
Sebastian County Treasurer-Collector Judith Miller said she distributes the turnback each month to local schools and cities.
Thurston said the new online mapping feature will provide a convenience for potential buyers and could help speed the process, to everyone’s benefit.
"This is a last resort to get those properties back on the tax rolls. We don’t want to take people’s property away from them," Thurston said. "If more people are interested in a property, that might prompt some competitive bids, which could bring in excess funds — and the owner can claim those excess funds."
Phillip Carper, a public relations specialist with the Lands Office, said online mapping will enable prospective buyers to view a Google satellite picture of properties instead of having to drive to each property to get a look.
After only a few months, it seems to be creating "more buzz," he said.
"In the first four months since it went online, we had 25 percent more offers on negotiated sales than in the previous year," Carper said.
Nikki Heck, public relations director for the State Lands Office, said the office received 6,511 requests for Negotiated Sales forms between Sept. 1 and March 20, compared to 5,068 for the same period in 2011-12 and 4,629 for 2010-11.
Heck said DataScoutPro, which hosts the property mapping service, reported 543,991 parcel views in 2012, compared to 329,248 views in 2011, when only legal descriptions were available.
"The average viewer views 27 parcels while they are on the site," Heck said.
In 2012, there were 16,649 unique users, compared to 12,145 in 2011.
The website offers two options for researching properties: Public Auction Catalog or Negotiated Sales Lists.
Under Public Auction Catalog is a list of counties in order of their auction dates, each with a link to the county catalog and an interactive county map. Each parcel has a link to a detailed property description.
Under Negotiated Sales Lists, the user can select a county, then click the parcel number or the link to "Map This County."
Wanda Freeman writes for the Times Record in Fort Smith.