Editorial: Tax-list bill would limit transparency

A recent editorial by the Youngstown Vindicator:

The majority of property owners … in Ohio responsibly pay their property taxes on time.

Unfortunately, not everyone who owns property is responsible.

Twice annually the Tribune Chronicle publishes pages and pages of delinquent property taxes owed on thousands of parcels of land in Trumbull County. The goal of publishing this delinquent tax list, required under Ohio law, of course, is to inform the general public that the owners of the listed parcels have not paid their property taxes and thus their property is in danger of being confiscated by the government.

Further, publication in the newspaper of record has served local government well by triggering payment of these delinquent taxes. We know it works because when the list is published a second time, it always is significantly shorter — an indication that many property owners reacted quickly and paid their overdue taxes. Frankly, some may not even have realized they were delinquent until they read it in the newspaper or some acquaintance saw it and let them know.

The most critical reason for requiring the publication of this list in the newspaper is the high level of transparency and information that this list brings — not just for county residents and neighbors, but more importantly, for the property owner.

You see, without this notification, it’s quite possible that a property owner may not even realize he or she is in arrears and could be facing confiscation of the property.

Now, there is a very real possibility some of this transparency is about to dissolve.

The Ohio House voted unanimously last week to approve a bill no longer requiring county auditors to publish this delinquent tax list in newspapers more than once. Under the legislation, the initial list still would have to be published in a newspaper, but after that, county auditors could choose to make the second list available online.

We and the Ohio News Media Association believe eliminating even one required publication in the newspaper of record starts us down a slippery slope of removing required transparency that keeps the public informed.

Under the new legislation, if a property owner who is about to lose his or her property to foreclosure happens to miss the first notice in the newspaper, he or she may never know to go looking online for the information. At a time when many Ohioans are suffering extreme economic hardship, it is very concerning to see lawmakers seek ways to reduce public awareness that the government may seize their property.

Further, these legislative moves stand to reduce checks and balances that come with local government officials providing these lists to an outside entity — the newspaper — for publication.

Monica Nieporte, president and executive director of the Ohio News Media Association, testified in May at a House committee hearing that “such a move would create problems for Ohio taxpayers” because “by placing these notices in a newspaper we provide a credible and impartial record to taxpayers. Further, this guarantees due process and avoids creating a conflict of interest for governmental” entities.

Newspapers reach thousands of readers every day. What happens when this obligation is removed? Few residents would search government websites regularly in an effort to see if they might have overlooked a property tax bill, not to mention that so many Ohio residents still do not have easily accessible internet access… .

We urge Ohio senators to vote no, and we urge the governor to argue against passage, and if necessary to consider a veto on this bill that is just one more step to allowing government to operate in the dark.

— Youngstown Vindicator, Sept. 21