Getting Noticed

untitledThat’s not the flutter of angel wings you hear when someone opens the door of the temporary Marion County Courthouse on Lafayette Street. Papers pinned to bulletin boards along the center hall can cause a stir when the wind comes at them from the right quarter.

Most of the waving sheets provide routine information about routine subjects like water quality. One group of notices, however, could cause someone to lose a farm or maybe a lake lot.

A “Citation by Posting” is one way a taxing entity can notify a missing person, in most cases an heir, that their property could be seized for payment of back taxes. “A warrant is filed when a property is perceived to be abandoned,” Karen Jones, Marion County Tax Collector, explained.

“It can be a lake lot no one has paid taxes on for years, making it abandoned property.” The only entities that can file tax warrants are the city and the county. School districts can not file a tax warrant. “We make a diligent effort to notify everyone,” Jones said.

Notices are sent to the last known address. Attempts to serve papers are made. When all else fails, a piece of paper is thumb-tacked to a courthouse bulletin board. Some might wonder if that is enough. “What you see on the bulletin board is before the judgement,” Jones said.

Although civil suits by private individuals require publication in the local newspaper in such cases, county and city get to slide. “There is no requirement of publication for a tax warrant,” Jones said. “There is a requirement to post it prior to filing a warrant.”

Before the property goes under the sheriff ’s hammer, there is published notice. “It ends up in paper is right before the sale,” Jones said. The cost of two printed notices also bothered Jones. “If we have to publish prior to getting a judgement and then publish after, the cost would be astronomical,” Jones said.

I reminded Jones that a recent tax sale cost the county about $3,000 in advertising, but they collected more than $100,000 from the auction. A bill pending in the legislature would end even this slim notice. SB 891 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston would demolish the historic system of using newspapers as a last resort for notice to missing people about civil legal actions against them.

The bill calls for establishing a statewide online repository for these notices.Some attorneys worry that vague language in the bill could be interpreted to include all public notice, including notices on governmental matters.

We hope not, but we can’t take these concerns for granted. Here are some of the legal actions the bill is aimed at: probate matters requiring personal service of papers, tax lien notice of sale, guardianship proceedings, community property proceedings when one spouse has disappeared and child custody suits by a parent or guardian.

“That may be detrimental to the person being served,” Jones said of SB 891. “As a public service, it would be detrimental to my constituents.” Attorneys for the county advise Jones the main losers from SB 891 will be newspapers, but you can argue the county and citizens will lose, as well.

Posting a notice on a courthouse bulletin board is thin enough notice as it is. Of course, I think there should be printed notice so the maximum number of potential heirs can be reached. But, I also understand about the additional cost to the county and city.

Perhaps an abbreviated notice without all the metes and bounds would satisfy all parties. Putting these notices on some Austin-based web site would let only internet trolls find out about a farm for sale in Marion County.

While this may make sense in Houston, it’s looney tunes in Jefferson. In the end, Jones understands the situation. “You have to do what the law requires you to do,” Jones said. You might want to tell State Sen. Bryan Hughes to keep that law tethered to East Texas reality.

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