Think of Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis as government's answer to Dirty Harry. With a metaphorical .357 Magnum cocked and readied for firing, he squints at his subject and snarls out a rhetorical challenge: "Feel lucky, punk?" His weapon is the lien he just slapped on a commercial building, then sold to a private collection agency. And his targets aren't two-bit street hoods but owners of commercial or residential property who try to weasel out of paying property taxes.
Rokakis was in the Ohio legislature when he began noticing that something was terribly amiss in Cuyahoga County's system of collecting property taxes. The county's delinquent real estate taxes-as high as $150 million at one point-were larger than those of the next five most populous Ohio counties combined. "This chasing you when you owe us-it's costly and time consuming and I'm not sure it's that efficient." County prosecutors, already mired in the usual assortment of cases dealing with street crime and drug violations, just weren't up the task of becoming bill collectors, too.
So he and other legislators succeeded in getting the state law changed to permit the sale of liens to private collection agencies, thereby becoming one of 30 states which permits the privatization of tax collections. Later, after he had become county treasurer, Rokakis auctioned off the county's liens to a company in Atlanta, which is allowed to tack on 18 percent in interest to the arrearages it attempts to collect.
Of course, there's a subplot at work in all of this, too. As a relatively young man with his eye set on higher office some day, it wouldn't be such a bad thing for Rokakis to have earned a reputation for stinginess with the public purse strings. That way, if he were to one day run for, say, county commissioner or mayor, he could run on the platform of fiscal conservatism, with some tangible accomplishments about which to boast.
And by all accounts, the change in tactics is working. The 90-day notices that began going out to deadbeats last year, warning them they had only that period to go on a repayment plan or face foreclosure, prompted many people to do so. As of September, $29 million in delinquencies had either gone on payment plan or were paid in full. "We're roughly 25 percent ahead of last year" in property taxes collected, says Mike Sweeney, supervisor of the county's delinquent tax department. "There's a direct correlation between those increases and changes in the system."
Of course, unpaid bills will always give rise to world-class excuse artists. Rokakis chuckles over the lawyer who sought leniency for his elderly client, a tax delinquent since 1973. "His lawyer called and told me I should have sympathy for his client, because he's 82. My line was, 'yeah, but he was 57 when he stopped paying his taxes.'"
Rokakis recalls as particularly illuminating an exchange he once had with a prominent developer who was chronically in arrears. "He owed a lot of money, and I asked him, knowing that he wasn't poor: 'Why do you owe all this money to me?' And he just basically gave me the order of his payments. 'I pay myself first, I pay my employees, I pay my suppliers, I keep my bank line of credit healthy,' and he gave me the rest of this long list. He was with his lawyer, and he said, 'The only person I pay after you is him.'"
The intent of the new lien sale system is pretty modest, says Rokakis, a man of practical bent. "All we're trying to do is move up on the order of payment. Instead of paying me second last, pay me fourth or fifth, as opposed to ninth or tenth."