SHIRLEY -- The tax title assignment auction at the Town Offices Friday morning -- the first of its kind the town has ever held -- launched right on time: 10 a.m.

About ten minutes later, it was over.

Without ado and with only a few people present, a lone bidder scooped up all nine tax titles (municipal liens for back taxes) on the auction block.

The bidder, Bill Cowin, managing member of an outfit called Tallage, a Boston-based processing company that deals solely in tax lien acquisitions, cut a check for $143,953.05, the total taxes due on all nine properties.

It was all by the book. Cowin had pre-registered, as required, earlier this month and his bid met all the criteria Town Treasurer Lisa Gibbons read out from the official notice for the duly-advertised auction. But the groundwork was laid a couple of months ago, when Cowin came to the selectmen with a proposal to buy up municipal tax liens.

He explained how the deal would work, targeting the backlog of delinquent tax bills to pull out those the town had tried and failed to collect, some of them for decades. The advantage, he said was that the town would get the money it was due but with no administrative strings attached.

Tallage would then pursue the outstanding bills. If they are not paid, the firm can initiate legal measures to take over the property and as the new owner would be responsible for property taxes.

It apparently sounded like a win/win to the selectmen.


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After hearing Cowin's presentation, they asked Town Administrator Mike McGovern to work with him and with Town Treasurer Lisa Gibbons to prepare a tax title list, initiate the tax taking process and schedule an auction for the sale-able liens.

More like a re-boot with a new twist, the current initiative picks up on a previous process an interim town administrator spearheaded several years ago.

Facilitated by former tax collector Holly Haase, the earlier effort met with some success in terms of recouping revenue, but during a period of heavy staff turnover, it stalled.

Tax taking is a long, complex process. Steps include posted notifications, letters to tax-delinquent property owners and legal follow-up, culminating in foreclosure, even eviction if owners don't pay up.

By selling off tax liens rather than pursuing delinquent taxes -- often owed by people who have abandoned a derelict property -- the town recoups revenue it is unlikely to get otherwise, with no further action.

When McGovern took over, there were plenty of delinquent tax bills still on the books, he and Gibbons said, some dating back to 1978. Back taxes due totaled $1.8 million.

With the recent auction takeaway, plus amounts taken in for overdue bills paid since the recent tax title process began, that total has been whittled down some, McGovern said, with $350,000 netted so far.

McGovern surmised that publicity attached to the legal process of tax taking stirred up some action this time around, including Cable TV coverage.

The Shirley Public Access Corp., or SPACO films the selectmen's weekly meetings, which air live on one of the town's cable channels, with re-runs. So, Cowin's presentation got plenty of air time, alerting tax-delinquent property owners that the wheels were in motion again.

One way or another, some overdue bills got paid, McGovern said.

As of this week, nine more have been taken care of, at least as far as the town is concerned.

Which does not mean the property owners are off the hook.

The owners of those nine parcels still owe the amounts due on the liens, to Tallage now, not the town, and if they want to retain their properties -- on Parker, Going, Longley, Harvard, Peabody, Center, Groton, Horse Pond and Center Roads, respectively, they must pay.

The nine-item auction list, with individuals, trusts and an estate named as the owners and overdue tax amounts ranging from $8,000 to $43,000, accounted for $143,953.05 owed to the town in back taxes. Now, in one sweep, those bills have been paid and the town does not need to take any further action.

As for the rest of the $1.8 million in unpaid taxes on the books, Gibbons is working on it, she said. 

It was all new to her, and to the assessors, McGovern said, but they aim to keep "chipping away" at the list. Some liens are tied up due to legal issues, others may involve bills paid past deadline, McGovern said. In any case, the process is ongoing and there will be more tax title auctions in the future, he said.