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Payment plans helping hundreds of Berrien Co. properties avoid foreclosure

BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. -- In the midst of tax season, a payment plan system in Berrien County is saving hundreds of homes and businesses from foreclosure, and keeping more money in your wallet.

“If everybody follows through, it’ll save taxpayers $3 million because that’s how much is owed in taxes,” said Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski.

The payment plan system has been in place in Berrien County since 2010.

It provides property owners behind on their taxes a way out, while saving law-abiding taxpayers money in the long run.

“For every hundred properties we foreclose on, that we take to auction, the county – which means the taxpayers – lose money on 75 of those,” Witkowski said, “which means they’re not satisfying the tax debt.”

Roughly 635 properties could have been foreclosed on this past Monday, April 2, if the payment plan system didn’t exist.

Instead, only 185 properties were taken over by the county.

Witkowski said the numbers have been fluctuating, in a good way, as the program becomes more known.

The county foreclosed on 457 properties in 2016, 225 in 2017, and now 185 in 2018.

Back in 2016, 300 people had entered into payment plans.

Now, that number is close to 800.

Witkowski said this matters because property tax dollars go toward a list of things like local schools, the airport authority, Dial-A-Ride, public libraries, and more.

And without those tax dollars, Witkowski said, “All those things are getting bills back for money we thought we were going to collect, but we couldn’t.”

But so far, the list of people on payment plans is growing and succeeding, with over 90% of participants keeping up with their payments.

Sue Akens is one of several volunteers who help Witkowski sign people up for the plans at special meetings.

She described the experience as, “Extremely gratifying. The look of gratitude and relief on the faces of people when they realize they’re not going to be losing their homes, and they can enter into a payment plan, it is just – I can’t describe it. It’s great.”

If you’re behind on your 2015 property taxes and you haven’t signed up for a payment plan, Witkowski said you missed the final cutoff.

But he said people are already signing up to catch up on their 2016 and 2017 taxes.

You can stop by his office at the county administration building in St. Joe to learn more.

In Benton Harbor, the Orchards Mall avoided foreclosure on Monday at the last minute.

The owner of the mall paid his 2015 back taxes in full right at the deadline to keep the mall open for at least another year.

Witkowski said he did not offer the mall owner a payment plan because the mall owner has not been compliant in the past.

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