On a warm spring morning in a first floor conference room in the Prince George's County Administration Building a few week ago, two men in shirt sleeves began a rhythmic cadence that continued throughout the day:

"No. 13 29712-00-002, assessed at $45,220, taxes, $4,701.92."

Pay your tax amount, tax amount, tax amount - Sold to P.G. County."

"No. 13 3720-26-007, assessed at $4,410, taxes $214.08."

"Pay your tax amount, tax amount, tax amount - SOld to bidder no. 28."

"No. 13 31148-17-005, assessed at %580, taxes $41.15."

Pay your tax amount, tax amount, tax amount - Sold to P.G. County."

On and on it went.

Prince George's County was putting the delinquent taxes of its landowners up for sale.

The ritual is the same every spring. The county decides to clean house and among the first things to go are all those tax bills people either forgot or couldn't pay last year.

It's like this: John Doe came up short between July and September last year and couldn't fork over $754.99 to pay his taxes.

So the ever-frugal county government offers John's $754.99 bill for sale. About half the time someone will take the county up on its offer and bid to pay the tax; the rest, the county must try to collect the taxes itself.

Why anyone would want to pay someone else's taxes may be confusing to many people who have a hard time just paying their own. But as with many out-of-the-ordinary pursuits, the reason is simply money, the "sure thing", the "can't lose either way."

When a bidder makes an offer to pay delinquent tax bill, he is essentially buying an option on the chance the owner may never pay his bill.

I f the owner doesn't pay his bill within a year and a day of the tax sale, the bidder can begin foreclosure proceedings on the property - a proceeding which could ultimately result in the bidder taking possession of the property.

If the owner pays the bill and additional penalties imposed by the county, he must also pay an interest rate of one per cent on the bill for every month he is delinquent. Upon payment, the county gives the bidder back his original investment (the amount of the tax) plus interest - interest that can amount to 12 per cent a year.

So whichever way the landowner goes, the bidder is a winner. Either he collects the property or he collects his investment plus a tidy profit.

This year about 70 people meandered to Upper Marlboro for the tax sale. Some came with the pages of published property listings carefully marked.

Some came out of curiosity, bidding on the house next door or on the median strip next door or on the median strip next to a plot of ground they might own.

There were three of four men, however, who bid and bid and bid and wound up paying the taxes on enormous amounts of property. Theodore Scheve of the District was one. Lawrence Kasdon of Bethesda was another.

But it seems a tax sale produces a certain amount of discretion in the bidder. Neither Kasdon nor Scheve would explain his bidding spree. Each, in his own oblique way, said, "I'm too busy to talk right now."

But county attorney Karl Harris, who handles foreclosure proceedings for the county, believes big bidders see the sales as investments. "Look, they're in it to make money.One way or the other,that's why they do it. These people make a profession out of it and they always get a good interest on their money."

The county doesn't really care who pays the taxes, a bidder or the landowner. They are in the business of collecting taxes. Period.

And out of 3.719 pieces of property put on the auction block this year, the county (by default) won the option on 1.987. Bidders won the other 1.732.

From those figures, county officials estimate that less than one percent will ever get to the foreclosure stage.

John Doe usually finds that few hundred dollars and marches it down to the treasurer's office pay his bill before that final year-and-a-day deadline.

After all, as one person sheephishly announced as she paid her bill, "I don't want no strangers taking advantage of me and my property."