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Salt Lake County will use a different auction process May 22 at its annual sale of properties with more than four years of delinquent taxes.

From now on, a traditional bidding process will be used to drive up the sales price. Up to now, Salt Lake has been the only county in the state to use a "bid down" process in which the sales price stays the same as it started — the amount of taxes owed — but the amount of land bought goes down, said County Auditor Greg Hawkins.

He was the lead proponent of the change, but had solid support from all of the other independent elected officials who deal with the property tax-collection system in some way, from the treasurer and assessor to the county district attorney's office.

"It makes everything easier if we do it this way," Hawkins told the council.

The change doesn't involve a lot of parcels, he said. An average of 55 parcels have made it to the final auction list in each of the last five years, and only about 4 percent of those provoke bidding wars.

Under the old method, if $15,000 in back taxes was owed and there were competing bidders, the final sales price still would be $15,000, but the winning bidder would purchase only part of the initial acreage.

In the new system, competing bidders would drive up the final sales price, with the delinquent taxpayer receiving whatever is obtained over the $15,000 owed.

One advantage of the arcane bid-down process, Hawkins acknowledged, is that delinquent taxpayers who can't afford to pay the whole bill can retain some of their property — for instance, the portion including their homes.

That prospect appealed to Republican Councilman Richard Snelgrove, who cast the lone vote against the change.

"I can't be in favor of something that makes it more likely, even if it is a remote chance, that someone could lose their home, especially if they're in a distressed-type situation," he said. "It's a bad idea."

Other council members were sympathetic to his concern, but were more persuaded by Hawkins' explanation that the new approach could protect delinquent taxpayers from land speculators who "buy [strips] because they think they'll make money when the other property owner wants to sell and needs the whole parcel."

Of the 350,000 land parcels in Salt Lake County, about 1,800 are put onto the tax-sale list at the beginning of the year. The auditor's and treasurer's offices usually reduce that number to 289 by the time the tax sale is advertised, this year on April 24. By the actual sale date, the list is down to 55 parcels. Twitter: @sltribmikeg