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Reject bill that limits access, transparency

The failure by some property owners to pay their fair share of taxes is not a new problem, nor is it a problem unique to Eastern Ohio.

Regular Times Leadaer readers already know this because for decades this newspaper has annually published pages and pages of delinquent property taxes owed on thousands of parcels of land.

The goal of publishing this 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, the list is always significantly shorter — an indication that many property owners reacted quickly and paid their overdue taxes. Frankly, some may not have even realized they were delinquent until they read it in the newspaper or some acquaintance saw it and let them know.

The founding fathers of our state knew the importance of publishing such notices in newspapers. They required the publication of delinquent tax lists in the spirit of ultimate transparency.

Now, however, some Ohio lawmakers are working to make access to this information more limited. Legislation pending in Ohio Senate Bill 95, an economic development bill that has already passed the Senate, now is being amended in the House of Representatives to curb requirements about publishing these notices in local newspapers. If it passes, it would require local government to publish the list in local newspapers only one time. After that, the list will be found only on government websites. That’s a problem for many reasons.

Property owners, and in some cases those who hold mortgages on the parcels, would be forced to hunt for delinquent property tax information on various websites, rather than it being brought to their attention in the pages of the daily newspaper.

The bill’s language also requires only one-time newspaper publication of notices on impending property tax foreclosures. Subsequent notices would be permissible on government websites.

Think about that.

That means 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 take 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.

It also is just one more step to allowing government to operate in the dark. 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 paying their property tax bill, not to mention that so many Ohio residents still do not have easy accessible to the internet.

Finally, in the name of fairness, shouldn’t the shortened list, in which names of those who paid their bills after the first newspaper publication are removed, be reflected in a second newspaper publication?

Tax delinquency is a very serious problem, and law-abiding residents, who pay their taxes on time, have the right to know if and when they might have missed a payment in error.

We urge you to contact your state legislators to remind them of the importance of openness and transparency at a time when, increasingly, government is attempting to operate in the dark.

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