Arkansas Land Commissioner John Thurston was the guest speaker Thursday at a joint meeting of the Monticello Rotary and Lions clubs, where he gave a presentation on the duties and functions of his office.
Thurston, a former minister and the first Republican to hold the office, is working to streamline the functions of the office and educate the public on its duties.
“The primary function of this office is the disposition of tax delinquent property,” Thurston said.
Once a parcel is delinquent at the county level it is then certified by the Collector of that county and sent to the State Lands Office. During the next two years, Thurston’s office conducts title searches and notifies property owners in an attempt to get the taxes paid. If, after two years, the taxes are not paid, the property goes to public auction in the county where the property is located. By the time the property goes to auction the taxes have been delinquent four or five years.
“The good news is 75 to 80 percent get redeemed by the original owner,” Thurston said. “But if it doesn’t, it goes to public auction.”
Statewide, 50,000, or two percent of the entire state’s parcels, are delinquent.
To make it easier for prospective buyers to research tax delinquent lands, Thurston’s office partnered with a company called DataScout which provides an online mapping system through the Office of State Lands website.
The system allows prospective buyers to research the state’s entire catalog of tax-delinquent properties before attending a public auction or negotiating a sale.
Historically, if someone was interested in a parcel they went down to the courthouse, pulled up the assessment information and did their own research. Now, prospective buyers can go to the Office of State Lands website, click on the parcel and pull up the information.
“In the past, a lot of the guys who knew how to research the property on the county level had an edge on the market, so to speak,” Thurston said. “In fact one gentlemen who buys a lot of property through the office said, ‘You know, John, I don’t like that new DataScout feature you guys have. Now anybody can find that information.'”
That’s the point, Thurston said.
In 2012, Thurston’s office turned back $21 million to Arkansas counties. Drew County, for example, received $91,000 through turnback (redemptions and sales).
In addition to the turnback funds, those properties are back on the tax rolls to generate revenue, primarily for schools. Around 80 percent of the local property taxes go to the school district in which the property is located.
In response to a question about the redemption or sale of delinquent properties, Thurston said there are a small number of properties that are neither redeemed nor sold. Those properties remain on the books until they are redeemed, sold or donated.
Thurston said the Office of State Lands can donate property to government entities. “You fill out an application, say what you want to use it for, and nine times out of 10 we will donate it,” he explained. “If nobody wants it, it’s better for someone to get some use out of it, especially for the community.”
Another duty of the State Land Commissioner’s Office is the preservation of historical documents, some dating back to the Louisiana Purchase.
“We have the original field notes and plat maps from when this entire region was drawn up,” Thurston said.
Former State Land Commissioners Charlie Daniels and Mark Wilcox began the process of cleaning and digitizing the documents and Thurston continued that process. He subsequently was awarded a $250,000 grant to renovate the front of his office to provide custom humidity-controlled cases for public display of the documents.
“Now the public can see them,” Thurston said. “Previous land commissioners did a lot of work preserving (the documents) but they didn’t have a permanent home.”
Prior to Thurston’s presentation, the Lions Club district governor recognized several Lions Club members for their service to the club. Lions Club members Donald Hogue and David Anderson were both recognized for 40 years of service and Nancy Miller was recognized for her 10 years of service.