Post-Bathon reforms: Madison County tax sale hits record low interest rate

News-DemocratFebruary 21, 2014 

— The recently completed Madison County tax sale resulted in the sale of $4.4 million worth of tax liens and an average penalty interest rate of 1.59 percent -- the lowest ever, according to Treasurer Kurt Prenzler.

The rate achieved at the annual tax sale on Feb. 13 is a record low for Madison County. It is also fraction of the nearly 18 percent average penalty rates during Fred Bathon's tenure as treasurer from 2005-09.

Prenzler attributed the record low penalty low interest rates at this year's tax sale to a more aggressive attitude among bidders because of a more competitive environment.

"Maybe they're more comfortable with how things are going in Madison County," Prenzler said.

At first Prenzler was concerned that interest penalty rates would be affected by the absence this year of some of the biggest bidders froom previous years, such as Dennis Ballinger of Decatur and Barrett Rochman of Carbondale.

But Prenzler's concerns were quickly allayed when he saw that major taxbuyers from the Peoria area stepped in and bid competitively, he said.

"Maybe their confidence in the tax sale increased," Prenzler said.

A 2010 News-Democrat investigation of Bathon's handling of the tax auctions helped launch a federal probe. It led Bathon, in early 2013, to plead guilty to rigging the tax sales in return for campaign contributions from a core group of wealthy tax buyers.

Federal prosecutors estimated Bathon's scheme forced at least 10,000 property owners to pay up to $5 million in excessive penalty rates. Bathon began his 30-month sentence at the federal prison camp in Terre Haute, Ind. in January, while three tax buyers pleaded guilty to colluding with Bathon to rig the tax sales in October.

On Wednesday, a federal judge handed down prison sentences to two of Bathon's co-conspirators, John Vassen of Belleville, and Scott McLean, whose tax-buying business is based in East St. Louis. Vassen received a two-year sentence, and McLean 18 months.

The historically low penalty interest rates at Madison County's Feb. 13 tax sale continue the trend that began in 2011. That year Prenzler, elected in the wake of the newspaper revelations about Bathon's criminal conduct, instituted an automated bidding procedure that replaced the verbal bidding system that made Bathon's conspiracy possible.

Madison County's average interest penalty rate at the 2011 sale was about 3.91 percent.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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