For the first time in several years, the number of property tax scofflaws has dropped — dramatically in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Both counties report sharp declines in the number of properties whose owners failed to pay their 2009 property tax bills by April 1, the point at which government considers an owner delinquent.
Tax collectors aren't sure why.
The amount owed on those delinquent bills is down by an even greater margin. That is at least partly a reflection of tax bills plummeting with property values.
"It came as a total surprise," said Sam McClelland, deputy tax collector for Pinellas County. "Because we have had no indicators in the economy that things are better. We do know that we've lost a lot of value."
• In Hillsborough, 39,579 parcels are listed as delinquent on their taxes, 6,492 fewer than April 1 of last year. The amount owed in taxes is $115.6 million, down from $159.6 million last year.
• In Pinellas, the number of delinquent property tax payers is down 17 percent, from 40,134 last year. The amount they owe is down 26 percent, from $139.2 million last year.
Both numbers began spiking in 2005 as nonhomesteaded property owners saw their tax bills skyrocket with rising property values before the bubble burst. The rising number of delinquencies foretold the housing market meltdown that would start to unfold two years later.
The reversal is not evident in all bay area counties. Pasco saw delinquencies and the amount owed on back taxes stay almost flat during the past year, said Tax Collector Mike Olson.
Delinquencies are actually up slightly in Hernando County, although the amount owed is down "due to the decrease in property values," said Tax Collector Juanita Sikes.
Officials in Hillsborough offered a few theories for what is happening there and in Pinellas.
One is that because tax bills are lower mainly due to declining values, property owners are having an easier time paying.
"That's likely to be in some instances a factor," said Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner.
That may be getting offset in Hernando County, which has experienced comparatively greater job losses.
On the downside, it also is likely a reflection on the high number of home foreclosures in the Tampa Bay region, which may be the more plausible explanation. With banks taking over record numbers of homes, it puts them on the hook for the tax bill.
They've got to pay the tax bill before they can unload a house, said Turner and Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden. If they don't pay by the end of this month, the tax collector can sell the debt off to private collectors who will seek to recoup the money, with interest.
A list of delinquent Hillsborough properties published Monday appears to bear that out, as few are listed as owned by banks.
"I believe there's a correlation between (the banks) owning the title and paying off the taxes," Belden said. "If you're in the foreclosure process, the taxes need to be paid before you can have a sale, in order to get clear of the title."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]