Opinion 92-35

This opinion represents the views of the Office of the State Comptroller at the time it was rendered. The opinion may no longer represent those views if, among other things, there have been subsequent court cases or statutory amendments that bear on the issues discussed in the opinion.

REAL PROPERTY TAXES AND ASSESSMENTS -- Enforcement (notice of unpaid taxes with respect to county taxable property)
RECEIVER OF TAXES AND ASSESSMENTS -- Powers and Duties (notice of unpaid taxes with respect to county taxable property)

REAL PROPERTY TAX LAW, §987: A notice of unpaid taxes pursuant to RPTL, §987 should not be sent to a county with respect to its taxable real property.

You ask whether Real Property Tax Law (RPTL), §987 requires town tax collecting officers to mail to the county a notice of unpaid taxes with respect to county-owned real property liable for taxes (cf. RPTL, §406, with respect to the taxable status of real property owned by municipal corporations within and without their corporate limits).

RPTL, §987 requires local tax collecting officers to mail a notice of unpaid taxes1, subsequent to the expiration of the interest-free period for the collection of taxes (see §924[2]), but prior to the expiration of the warrant for the collection of those taxes (see §904[1]) in accordance with a time-frame set forth in section 987(1), "to each owner of real property upon which taxes remain unpaid on the tax roll ..." (emphasis added) at a charge of one dollar per parcel.

Read literally, the statute requires notice to each owner of real property upon which taxes remain unpaid, including a county. As a general rule of statutory construction, however, "[a] construction which would make a statute absurd, or lead to absurd results, should be avoided" (McKinney's Statutes, §145, pp 294-295). Thus, courts generally will "rule out absurd and unexpected results" which might arise from a literal interpretation of the language of a statute (see, e.g., Chatlos v McGoldrick, 302 NY 380, 388). In this regard, we believe, as explained below, that a literal interpretation of RPTL, §987 to require notice to a county of unpaid taxes on county property would serve no purpose and, therefore, would create an absurd result not within the intendment of the statute.

Section 987 was part of a more comprehensive legislative act primarily designed to resolve problems that had arisen in the collection and payment of real property taxes through tax escrow accounts (see L 1989, ch 440). Prior to enactment, the bill was amended (1989 Senate 4813-A) to eliminate language which would have limited the application of section 987 to property owners paying taxes through such escrow accounts. Nonetheless, it seems clear that the general intent of section 987 was to provide notice of nonpayment to owners of real property who might ultimately lose title through tax delinquency. Thus, a notice of unpaid taxes under section 987 serves the purpose of advising property owners that the taxes on their property have not been paid and that failure to pay could ultimately result in a loss of title to their property.

In the case of county-owned taxable real property, RPTL, §995 provides that "[r]eal property owned by a municipal corporation shall not be sold or conveyed by foreclosure or otherwise for the non-payment of any tax or special assessment". The same section provides an alternative procedure to be followed in the case of tax delinquent municipal real property, including a written demand for payment, subsequent to which payment may be enforced by a proceeding brought pursuant to article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Thus, section 995 includes its own unique provision for written notice of unpaid taxes on municipal property and renders the purpose of a section 987 notice inapplicable to county-owned real property. Accordingly, it is our opinion that a notice of unpaid taxes required by Real Property Tax Law, §987 should not be sent to a county with respect to its taxable real property.

November 2, 1992
John R. Thompson, Receiver of Taxes & Assessments
Town of Tonawanda

1 We note that the word "taxes" as used in RPTL, §987 and article 9 of the RPTL generally (see RPTL, §102[20]) includes "special ad valorem levies" (defined in RPTL, §102[14]), but not "special assessments" (RPTL, §102[15]). Thus, section 987 would clearly have no application to a bill which includes only special assessment