SHIRLEY -- With 96 accounts on the tax-taking list the town collector released some time ago, more than a few show outstanding balances dating back decades.
Seeing no significant recent activity aimed at recouping at least some of that money, Town Administrator Patrice Garvin decided to re-energize the process.
The goal is to whittle down that list, Tax Collector Holly Haase told selectmen Monday night and to collect as much of the money due to the town as possible, if not from the tax-delinquent property owners directly then by foreclosing on and selling the listed properties, the final steps in the process.
Sharing Garvin's view that it was time to take action, Haase agreed to tackle the project with help from Assistant Treasurer Janet Poitras.
The first step was fact-checking.
Working with Poitras, Haase revisited the tax-taking list she had previously prepared, posted and advertised in a local newspaper as required by state law.
They examined the data, one account at a time, she said, checking each item on the list against archived records to ensure the information was correct and whether outstanding balances were up to date.
With data verified, notices will again be sent to owners of record, Haase said, describing a step in the tax-taking process that produced little or no result the first time around.
Although payment on all of the accounts is due in full, plus interest and fees, Haase said payment schedules can still be arranged for long overdue accounts, even if the town has placed a lien on the property.
The list Haase and Poitras have been working from includes owners who haven't paid their property taxes for quite a while. Some of the outstanding accounts date back as far as 1935, Haase told the board, but most are from the 1990s.
"Are any of the people paying?" Selectman David Swain asked.
"Some did, long ago, but some are so far in arrears" that amounts due total $40,000 or $50,000, even without fees and interest, Haase said. "If we can get someone to pay, we will," but if not, it's time to move forward with foreclosures, she said.
Chairwoman Kendra Dumont asked how the town could collect on accounts with "unknown owners."
"The assessors have a process," Haase responded. "Land of low value" comes first. That is, orphan parcels and unbuildable lots worth no more than $10,000.
Data on those parcels is verified and sent to the Department of Revenue, which can then cede the property to the town and free it up for sale, with no need to hire an attorney. "We can auction it after that," Haase said.
Citing her goals for the tax-taking initiative, Haase said she hopes to hold the first auction this spring or by early summer and to start auctioning off the other properties on the list in September.
For now, most of the 96 accounts on the tax-taking list -- with owners of record ranging from individuals or estates of deceased former owners to real estate trusts, mortgage companies and banks -- are headed for court. Six of them are currently in land court, Haase said, including properties on Harvard and Lancaster roads, Longley and Leominster roads, Apple Rock and Valley View Way, Patterson, Little Turnpike and Great roads and Abigail Lane.
Garvin noted that some town-owned parcels such as the so-called Barkus property have been identified as prime sites for solar farms and could become revenue sources that way. Bids on the Kittredge property are due this week, she said.
With annual Town Meeting set for June 2, she asked if the selectmen wanted to consider warrant articles seeking authorization to sell other town-owned properties such as the McNiff property on Fredonian Street and the municipal parking lot in the village.
Swain said that site was intended for a police station when the town purchased the land many years ago. But it turned out to be unsuitable and he wondered if wetlands would pose a problem for commercial uses now.
An article on the 2008 Town Meeting warrant seeking permission to sell the land failed in 2008, Selectman Robert Prescott pointed out, but as far as wetlands go, the only real issue would be the 200-foot offset required by the Rivers Act, he said.
Otherwise, "it's developable" in his view, with town water and sewer available on site. He suggested working on a "short list" of properties for the fall Town Meeting.