The following year, Battisti mailed in a check for the full amount noted on her tax bill. What the bill didn't show was that Battisti also owed the county $234.72 as a result of interest and other charges added to that original late fee.
That shortfall was enough to ultimately prompt her local tax collectors in Beaver County, Pa., to sell the house in a tax sale.
Illustration by Jesse Lenz (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)
"I couldn't believe it," Battisti says. "They sold my house because I owed interest and penalties on that late fee, yet for three years, they never told me anything. Of course I would have paid that fee if I knew about it — $6.30 is just lunch money!"
A dying husband's wish
Battisti's nightmare stemmed from the fact that she had paid off the mortgage on her house — a large brick home in Aliquippa, Pa., just outside of Pittsburgh. She did so with the proceeds from her husband's life insurance policy after he died from stomach cancer in 2004. "This was his final wish," says Battisti, now 54. "He wanted to be sure that the three children and I would always have a place to live."
But that meant that her property taxes were no longer paid by the mortgage company. Battisti says she didn't know about the outstanding balance on her home because the bills she received from the county tax office made no mention of it. "I paid what I was told I owed them," she said.
The county, for its part, claims that it sent her all the notification that the law requires. S.P. Lewis of Imperial, Pa., bought Battisti's house for $113,000 at auction, then offered to sell it back to her for $160,000. If she didn't buy it, he wanted to charge her $2,500 a month in rent for the period of time she remained in the house.
Outraged, Battisti hired a private attorney and challenged the county. Last year, after a long legal battle, a Pennsylvania appeals court overturned the sale of Battisti's home. But Lewis has asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review the court decision overturning the home sale. So far, this whole thing has cost Battisti more than $30,000 in legal fees.
Elderly are vulnerable
This is hardly an isolated case. Around the country, aggressive taxing authorities are increasingly seizing and selling homes as a way to generate revenue, says Julie Nepveu, a senior attorney at AARP Foundation Litigation, which supported Battisti's case on appeal with a friend-of-the-court brief. "Older homeowners are most vulnerable to losing their homes through tax sales like this one. It's a huge problem that has reached crisis proportions in many parts of the country."
Nepveu urges consumers to be diligent about their tax bills, especially if their mortgage is paid off and taxes aren't automatically paid. In Battisti's case, Beaver County's tax office mailed out notifications that were "incomplete, confusing, contradictory and hard to read," Nepveu says. "I spent a weekend with Mrs. Battisti's notices, and if I, as an attorney, couldn't understand them, imagine how confusing it is for the average person."
Jim Christiana, a state representative in Pennsylvania, has called for an investigation into the Beaver County tax office. "What happened to Mrs. Battisti did not sit right with me," he says. "There is lack of transparency here, downright abuse." The tax claim bureau did not respond to the Bulletin's inquiries.
For homeowners who face difficulties paying their property taxes, there is help: Every state has special abatement or exemption programs for property taxes.
According to a report published by the National Consumer Law Center, these programs grant "full or partial relief to taxpayers due to age, disability, income, or personal status. The benefits are not automatic and most programs require the homeowner to proactively apply for the abatement or exemption."
Jan Goodwin is an award-winning author and investigative journalist for national publications.