The Athens County auditor expressed extreme concern at the expedited foreclosure process at the Athens County Commissioners meeting, telling the body she believed the Board of Revision process was subject to abuse and had the appearance of being improper.
Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson, who is one of three board members of the Athens County Board of Revision, an obscure bureaucratic body that typically handles the challenging and assessment of property taxes, said the body may be acting improperly.
The other two Board of Revision members are County Commissioner Chris Chmiel and Treasurer Ric Wasserman.
However, in recent years, the BoR has been used in the expedited foreclosure process. According to state law, the board has the power to foreclose on a blighted, vacant and abandoned property if taxes are not being paid, after the Ohio General Assembly passed it into law in 2006. The board can then turn the property over to the Athens County Land Bank, a nonprofit corporation run by county officials, who may put it up for sale or auction.
The land bank is not required to accept the highest bid for a property and can sell to potential buyers based on their intentions for the property, WOUB reported.
Thompson said the process currently used for many expedited foreclosures on tax delinquent property is very concerning to her, as Wasserman is the president of both the Board of Revision and the Land Bank, and Chmiel is a member of both bodies, which she said leads to an appearance of impropriety.
One of her biggest concerns, she said, is that the treasurer is involved at every step of the process, from foreclosure to sale.
“I don’t even want it to even have the appearance that government officials acting in their capacity may not pass the smell test,” Thompson said.
Thompson also expressed umbrage for what she believed was not fair compensation for property seized due to tax delinquency — property owners are expected to receive any surplus from the sale that was more than taxes owed.
She said she would prefer to see foreclosure cases go primarily through the court channel, which is how they were processed until 2019. She said this would create the appearance of “independence” in foreclosures.
“My hope is to get some of those issues resolved, or figure out a way to change our process so there’s some independence and not an appearance of impropriety,” Thompson said.
However, Thompson originally voted to begin expedited foreclosures in 2019. When asked what has changed between then and now, Thompson said she wanted to be “open to the process,” and she believed they would not be as common as they are.
“It was a very different dynamic,” Thompson said.
Wasserman, who spoke to The Messenger after the meeting, said he is mandated under law to serve on both boards, and his leadership on both bodies does not mean his office is behaving unethically.
“As officeholders, we’re forced to wear different hats and serve on different boards — the assumption is we’re all operating ethically,” Wasserman said. “Sometimes you wear more than one hat.”
However, Thompson said too many hats might not fit the one head.
“It’s confusing the treasurer can set the price when he is wearing the two chief hats,” Thompson said.
Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn agreed with Thompson in part, saying Chmiel’s presence on both bodies could be seen as improper.
“It is my opinion that two members of the board of revision should not be on the landbank and I have done everything to advise you that,” Blackburn said to the Board of Commissioners.
Chmiel said during the meeting he would step down from the Board of Revision, which used to be occupied by Commission Chair Lenny Elaison and fellow commissioner Charlie Adkins, to avoid a potential conflict of interest.
Chmiel told The Athens Messenger he was on the Board of Revision because there is a limited pool of county employees to serve on the board as is mandated. Until Chmiel finds a replacement for himself, he said his position on the Board of Revision is in “flux.”
“I personally have been really involved in the land bank the whole time — I don’t really have an interest in getting off the Land Bank board,” Chmiel said.
Chmiel stressed properties foreclosed by the Board of Revision in the expedited process are almost always abandoned and the property owner has passed away.
“The fact of the matter is that the process of going through the courts goes slower than expedited foreclosure,” Chmiel said.
Wasserman, and others during the meeting, suggested Thompson simply does not like the laws surrounding expedited foreclosures and wants them changed.
“The auditor is conducting a campaign against expedited foreclosures at the Board of Revisions and the Land Bank,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman said the laws related to expedited foreclosures have been tested in court, most recently in the 2020 case, Feltner v. Cuyahoga County Board of Revision. In the case, a Cuyahoga County property owner argued that taking property without compensating owners for their equity in the property violates the state and federal constitutions.
The Ohio Supreme Court found in a narrow decision that the board of revision acted within the scope of the authority granted to it by the Ohio General Assembly from 2006.
Thompson acknowledged to The Athens Messenger that she did not like the laws or court rulings related to expedited foreclosures.
“I am working to get the law changed but I also don’t think those issues have been challenged properly,” Thompson said.
Chmiel, during the meeting, took exception to Thompson’s depiction of the expedited foreclosures process.
“I’m not seeing these ‘takings’ you’re talking about — I see happy neighbors coming over and saying ‘thank you for cleaning up this building,” Chmiel said to Thompson.
Wasserman echoed those sentiments.
“These foreclosures are only on vacant and abandoned property — we are never talking about a foreclosure on a house somebody is living in,” Wasserman said.
However, Thompson said she still would believe a court process would be better than an expedited foreclosure.
“It’s sat there this long, can’t we do it right?” Thompson said.
Wasserman justified the use of the expedited foreclosure process, saying it speeds up “dealing with dilapidated, terrible properties and communities where people are suffering because they’re living next to it.”
He also added that if anyone were to come forward as property owner during the Board of Revision hearings, at any point during the process, they could have the case moved to the Court of Common Pleas.
Wasserman even said he believes the expedited foreclosure process through the Board of Revisions is better than the courts because it offers a public hearing rather than summary judgment.
“It’s hard for me to see why anyone would have a problem with the process, there’s a safety valve,” Wasserman said.
Adkins, who used to sit in Chmiel’s seat, agreed with Thompson that the laws surrounding expedited foreclosures and the Board of Revision. However, Adkins said, the county must follow the law.
“I just don’t think that it’s a good process the way the law’s written, but it’s the law, I don’t like other laws that are written but it is the law and I think we’re following the law,” Adkins said.
He also said if Chmiel’s presence on the Board of Revision causes an appearance of impropriety, then Wasserman’s leadership of both boards should be viewed in a similar light.
“If there’s a conflict with Commissioner Chmiel sitting on that board, then there’s a bigger conflict that the treasurer sits on that board,” Adkins said. “It doesn’t seem right that it’s more of an issue with Commissioner Chmiel than with the treasurer.”