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PENNSYLVANIA Unclaimed property slows Treasury

Thursday, April 17, 2003

The amount of property grows by $4 million each month.
HARRISBURG (AP) -- Dr. Charles Winter, alarmed that he had no retirement plan, invested thousands of dollars from his earnings as an orthopedic surgeon in 1961.
He didn't worry about checking his investments regularly, and when the Delaware County Industrial Development Authority paid off its bonds 30 years early, he didn't know about it. The transfer agent eventually reported the money as unclaimed.
"I just invested it and waited until I was retirement age," Winter, 81, said from his home in Lancaster.
Eventually, he inquired about the bonds and found that the $20,000 he was owed for more than a decade had become part of a growing estate belonging to an estimated 800,000 people, secured in a 5,000-square foot stainless steel vault below the Treasury building in Harrisburg.
Growing problem
Welcome to the state Bureau of Unclaimed Property, where an approximately $728 million spread grows by $4 million each month.
"It keeps coming in faster than we can get rid of it, so there's no way we can track everybody down," said Treasury spokesman Robert Gentzel.
Winter was one of the lucky ones whose property was returned.
But if Pennsylvania can't get rid of the loot fast enough, it's not for a lack of trying, it seems.
Many days, boxes of goods come into the bureau, especially close to the April 15 reporting deadline. Some items have only a person's name attached.
Bureau workers search the Social Security Death Index, Lexis Nexis and state and credit industry records to track down owners or heirs.
With a $12.5 million budget, they place advertisements in newspapers and set up booths at hundreds of county fairs, conventions and local functions each year.
The state's Treasury Web site has an online database for items worth $5 or more; just enter your name to see if anything is yours.
When that fails, there's always the telephone.
Pennsylvania isn't alone. Last year, 42 states reported approximately $15.6 billion in unclaimed property, says a survey by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.
Shortening holding time
Lately, spurred by Pennsylvania's revenue shortfalls, state Treasurer Barbara Hafer has pursued ways to liquidate the goods faster and pour the revenue into the state's general fund. Lawmakers, looking for ways to avoid cutting spending or raising taxes, were only too happy to accommodate the effort.
In large part, she has sought to shorten the amount of time that property must be held before it is sold off; the state reimburses those who show up too late.
Her efforts eventually could add a sum of more than $250 million to the $50 million that the state receives annually from the sales.
Some items have only sentimental value and can't be sold.
There is the mundane, such as costume jewelry, and the sacred, such as Purple Hearts -- a medal awarded to members of the armed forces who are wounded or killed in action by the enemy -- and inscribed pocket watches.
And some owners and heirs can't be found, as in the case of some Civil War-era coins discovered during a 1994 state seizure of a bank and later put on display in the state museum.
"The real issue here," Hafer said, "is that people should keep records and tell family members what they have and where they have it."
The Pennsylvania Treasury Web site is