TFP delinquent land tax ads yield $3.9 million more than Blade average at nearly half the costWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Each year, the Lucas County Auditor’s Office is required by law to publish a list of delinquent land tax notices in a local publication.
In December, the notices were published in Toledo Free Press, the first time a free weekly newspaper has published the Lucas County list.
Toledo Free Press was the only publication to submit a bid and published the notices at a cost of $168,025.
Between January and March, $10.7 million in late and delinquent land taxes was collected, according to county records. That’s $3.9 million more than the average amount collected for the past four years at almost half the cost to taxpayers.
Between 2009-12, the notices were published by The Blade at an average cost of $321,000. An average of $6.8 million in taxes was collected each year between January and March following the publication of the notices.
The county paid The Blade $339,935 to run the notices in 2009, $287,135 in 2010, $347,272 in 2011 and $309,870 in 2012. Taxes reported collected between January and March of the following years were $6.8 million in 2010, $6.4 million in 2011, $6.9 million in 2012 and $7.1 million in 2013.
Toledo Free Press became eligible to publish legal notices with the signing into law of Ohio House Bill 153 by Gov. John Kasich in October 2011.
The legislation eliminated the link between charging for newspapers and being permitted to publish legal notices and opened the legal publication business to any “newspaper of general circulation” that publishes at least once a week and meets other criteria, including at least 25 percent editorial content, being published continuously for at least three years and the ability to add subscribers to its distribution list. The bill also requires the newspaper to offer its best classified rate.
“Before 2011, it really was tied strictly to whether you had a valid U.S. Postal Service mailing permit and generally those mailing permits are whether you’re a paid circulation newspaper,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association (ONA). “In 2011, the qualifications, you could argue, were relaxed. The postal permit requirement is still there, but there are other paths by which a newspaper can qualify.”
In October 2012, Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez sought an opinion from the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office, which ruled, “[Toledo] Free Press would now qualify as a paper of general circulation.”
That year, The Blade’s bid to publish the delinquent land tax notices was $330,617 and Toledo Free Press’ bid was $86,100.
Lopez recommended the 2012 contract be awarded to The Blade, citing Toledo Free Press’ lower circulation in areas such as Neopolis and Curtice. The Lucas County Commissioners, who have the final say, agreed.
“For me, this comes down to covering areas,” Lopez said. “I thought it was important to go with the broader circulation because of what we were doing. Our Constitution in our country protects property rights. Property is something sacred in our country. The most important reason why this ad has to occur is to protect property rights. That goes beyond the bottom line dollar. You have to balance that, but when we’re saying, ‘You’re delinquent to the point where we can take your property,’ this becomes the last call to the public to get in here and pay your taxes. That, to me, is lost in the process. Those were my concerns. That’s important to me as a lawyer. At the end of the day, I have to make my decision based on what I think is best for citizens and stick to my guns.”
Hetzel said statewide there are both dailies and weeklies that publish legal notices and awarding such contracts is “a local government decision.”
“The first thing they have to establish is if the newspaper that gets it is qualified in the law,” Hetzel said. “Then they have to compare and contrast competing bids and decide what’s going to serve the public best. The theoretical basis of a published notice is that it should be in a publication that is invited into people’s homes, that is wanted and not ignored. Like anything else in life, there are many factors involved that government officials need to consider. It’s not always based on price.”
Toledo Free Press Publisher Tom Pounds said that the “perceived shortcoming” in circulation has been addressed and said he still believes, as he has discussed in numerous columns, that TFP offers advantages beyond cost savings to those publishing legal notices.
“While a daily newspaper comes and goes in one day, our paper is on racks in 432 locations for seven days in addition to our 70,000 home-delivered copies,” Pounds wrote in December 2012. “It is worth noting that taxpayers who wish to see the information they have paid to publish would get that information at no cost in Toledo Free Press; they would have to pay for it (again) to read it in a daily newspaper.”
Lopez said she agreed TFP had addressed the circulation concern and that last year’s numbers showed “good results.”
“The numbers speak for themselves. We are saving money,” Lopez said. “It’s very hard to argue with that.”
The Village of Ottawa Hills, City of Toledo, City of Sylvania, Monclova Township, Lucas County Metropolitan Housing Authority, Toledo Public Schools, Washtenaw County and Metroparks of Toledo Area have also published legal notices in Toledo Free Press.
Lopez said she was approached last year — she declined to say by whom — after the bidding period on the delinquent land tax notices had closed and asked to re-open bidding since only one bid had been submitted, but she said no.
“I would like to make it very clear that I was definitely asked to reconsider, asked would I object to re-advertising the bid or allowing this bidding to be reopened last year and I said, ‘No, I think we move forward,’” Lopez said. “We had an eligible paper that met the qualifications, that had met the concerns from 2012. And the numbers had already been made public, so whoever would compete against that bid would know how to lowball them. You just can’t do that. That undermines the entire process of a public bid.”
Recent legislation will bring another change to the publication of legal notices. Starting in March, all notices printed in Ohio newspapers will also be required to be posted on www.PublicNoticesOhio.com, a free website operated by the ONA.
The change comes after Kasich signed House Bill 483 in June, which included the ONA-backed measure. ONA has operated PublicNoticesOhio.com for more than 10 years, but posting there hasn’t been mandatory until now, Hetzel said. PublicNoticesOhio.com will replace a state-run site created in 2011.
Notices will still be required to be printed in newspapers first, but uploading to the site will be required in order to continue to qualify to publish Ohio public notices.
In a June blog post announcing the new online requirement, Hetzel said it may save money for agencies as notices that are required to be published twice may publish a shortened version in print for their second run if the full list will be going online. The shortened notice option does not apply to all types of notices, including the delinquent tax list, he said.
“It’s good for everyone to have them all aggregated on one website, in the private sector and not a government website,” Hetzel told Toledo Free Press. “We worked hard on that and think it’s for the long-term good of our industry and the public.”
Tags: Anita Lopez, Delinquent Land Tax Notices, Dennis Hetzel, Lucas County, Lucas County Auditor's Office, Notices, Ohio House Bill 153, Ohio House Bill 483, Ohio Newspaper Association, Public Notices, The Blade, Toledo Free Press, Tom Pounds