CHARLES TOWN — Last week the Jefferson County Tax Office conducted a public auction of scores of real estate properties for unpaid taxes by the property owners. 

Auction bidders purchased more than 160 of those properties, from vacant land to single-family homes.

Everything appeared to go as planned for the Tax Office, except for required legal notices published beforehand. 

In the first two of three required legal notices the Tax Office had published, the dates for the Nov. 16 auction were listed incorrectly in The Spirit of Jefferson, the county’s newspaper of record. The first two notices stated the auction would be held on Nov. 17, the day after the event occurred in a basement meeting room of the Charles Town Library. 

The text of the legal notice was sent directly to The Spirit in an email from an outsourced typesetter the Tax Office hired. 

“Attached is the Fall 2021 Tax List for publication. It needs to run 3 consecutive times prior to Nov. 19. I would suggest, if possible, that be Oct. 27, Nov. 3, and Nov. 10 (leaving a full week between final publication date and the sale),” the typesetter who delivered the list, Toni Milbourne, wrote in a Sept. 28 email to the Spirit. “Any concerns over publication dates should be addressed to Teresa Hendricks in the Tax Office.”

Hendricks, the supervisor of the Tax Office for which Sheriff Tom Hansen is officially responsible, was not copied on Milbourne’s email. The Spirit published the legal notices as requested. 

About two days before the printing deadline for the newspaper’s Nov. 10 issue, Hendricks called the newspaper and asked that the auction date listed in the legal notice be corrected before the notice was published a third and final time. The notice ran with the corrected date.

Reached by phone on Monday, Hendricks said the auction date errors in the public notices won’t affect people who had their properties sold to bidding buyers. All of those property owners were sent certified letters informing them that their properties could be sold at the auction on Nov. 16, she said. 

“We have followed every step that we were required to follow,” she said.

State law requires property owners to be notified by certified letter at least 30 days before their properties might be sold at a public tax sale.

The Sheriff’s Office stated that the certified letters to property owners were mailed by Oct. 8.

The Spirit learned of three people who planned to attend the auction who showed on Nov. 17, the day after the event. 

Hendricks said the Tax Office doesn’t know how many would-be property buyers followed the wrong date. However, she said she doubted many relied on the wrong date. 

“Generally, all of the purchasers call us at some point, and we tell them the date of the land sale on the phone,” she said.

Russell Rollyson, a senior deputy state auditor with the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office, agreed with Hendricks that the misreported date shouldn’t create legal complications for property owners who had property sold at the auction. 

State law provides many protections before a property can be auctioned by the state for back taxes. For example, the legal safeguards will delay final retransfers of deeds of the properties sold at the Nov. 16 auction at least until April 2023, Rollyson pointed out. 

However, Rollyson said he has never heard of a county advertising an incorrect date for a deliinquent tax sale. He said he also doesn’t know of any court ruling involving a similar error.

For those reasons, Rollyson said he couldn’t be sure whether the error might create legal problems or complications for those who purchased property.

“I don’t know of any particular case like this,” Rollyson said. “I’ll be honest, I’ve been here 40 years, and I’ve never heard of something like this before.”

If the legal notifications had been published earlier, Tax Office officials might have had more time to rerun them at least three consecutive times with correct dates, he said.

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