The old, expansive courtroom that on Monday doubled as a delinquent taxes auction house brimmed with bidders eager to snap up Lexington County properties whose owners no longer could afford the taxes.
Urged by a staccato auctioneer, stone-faced bidders competed silently for 10 hours for homes, buildings and land that filled 25 single-spaced pages - a reflection of how the recession has driven the largest number of delinquencies in at least a decade, a Lexington County deputy treasurer said last week.
Owners of 1,389 properties had not paid their 2008 property taxes as of the end of business Friday, up 60 percent from the previous year, treasurer for delinquencies Gene Rishkofski said.
A final tally of properties sold Monday in Lexington and Richland counties will take a couple of days to compile. Richland County had about 270 fewer properties up for sale than in the previous year.
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A prime Lexington County commercial site on Harbison Boulevard, Ashley Furniture and Home Store, sold for $1.8 million. Owners owe about $165,000 in taxes for 2008 and 2009.
"It's only money," veteran auctioneer David Meares joked after one of the day's largest winning bids. A Whippany, N.J., company, Plymouth Park Tax Services, purchased the Ashley property, among several others.
Meares had to work harder to get bidders to hoist their white cards bearing an identifying number when it came to less desirable sites. Some drew no bids or as little as $200.
"How about $90," he pleaded after one property he called out drew silence from the crowd. "That's a good stocking stuffer."
Businessman Ed Estrella was among the taxpayers who salvaged his holiday. He made a last-minute payment in a small office beside the courtroom as the auction was under way in the former county courthouse on Lexington's Main Street.
"Because revenue is down, I have to postpone (paying taxes)," the 47-year-old owner of three retail businesses said. "I have to manage my cash flow. It's just very burdensome on small business."
The West Columbia resident is among critics of a 2006 state law that requires property taxes to be based on the price for which it sold - considered its true market value. That, Estrella said, doubled his taxes.
"There are a lot of people like me that it's punishing right now," he said, holding his tax bills.
Estrella would not identify his businesses or disclose the total of his tax bills. But he displayed one bill for $6,300, which he said is twice the 2007 total.
Critics are pushing to reverse that provision of the law, intended to shift the tax burden from homeowners to sales taxes.
"I hope that there is reform," Estrella said.
Owners of any delinquent property have one more year to come up with the money and interest if they want to keep the real estate.
Ben Cognata has been buying properties in South Carolina for about seven years. He said the crash of the housing market has made it a buyers' market for people like him.
"It's a huge difference," said the investor in four property-purchasing companies that own about 85 mostly residential properties. "I'm just buying these things for nothing as compared to other years. You can get these things for a song."
Deputy treasurer Rishkofski said many bidders stayed away from residential developments this year.
"In the past, just about everything we put up for sale sold," Rishkofski said.
This year, the county will end up owning properties no one purchased.