July 27--Lance Johnson owes about $129,000 in delinquent property taxes on land he owns in Cambridge, Minn.
He could write the check, but he knows the county tax collector won't do anything for a few years other than tacking on finance charges. So he's holding onto the money.
The Woodbury lawyer and real estate investor is playing a property tax game common among developers and other landowners: deflecting taxes as a business strategy. Johnson is gambling he'll find a buyer, perhaps someone looking to build apartments in the exurb, and then pay off the hefty back taxes. If not, he'll let the property slide into tax forfeiture and wash his hands of it.
"If it works, then you pay it and it's a loan you got," Johnson said in an interview. "And if it doesn't, it's a loan you have no personal liability for and you just let it go."
Johnson's mounting tax bill, which includes accrued penalties and 10 percent interest, makes him Isanti County's No. 1 property-tax debtor. And there are dozens like him topping delinquent property tax lists in the greater metro area, a Star Tribune analysis showed. They aren't disputing the amounts by going to tax court, filing bankruptcy or setting up payment plans.
They're just seriously late, and they know counties have limited tools to make them pay.
Combined, they owe millions of tax dollars that deprive schools, cities and counties of crucial revenue. These debtors form a significant portion of the roughly $80 million in delinquent taxes that have gone uncollected in the greater Twin Cities. That's more than three times what the state spends in a year on meals for schoolchildren.
While it's a source of frustration for some local tax officials, the great property tax shrug appears to be a generally accepted practice.
"There's no question that we end up being kind of the lender of last resort," said Keith Carlson, executive director of the Minnesota Inter-County Association. "That's just the way it is."
The sting of uncollected taxes has eased with the economic recovery. Coming off the Great Recession, when delinquent tax rolls soared and city governments were resorting to layoffs, the collections situation looks better than it has in years. In Hennepin County, delinquencies have fallen from a high of $81.4 million at the start of 2010 to $47.4 million at the start of this year. The county's tax forfeitures, where the state seizes land for nonpayment of property taxes, are dropping.
Metro counties collect from 97 and 99 percent of property taxes owed. The property-tax shuffle that's part of the stubborn uncollected 1 to 3 percent is just a fact of life, several county tax officials said.
Hennepin County Auditor and Treasurer Mark Chapin said the tax delay strategy concerns him because everybody should be paying their fair share. It's part of the social contract, he said, and when counties account for a certain level of nonpayment when setting levies, other taxpayers pick up the difference.
Still, he's not alarmed. He empathizes with business owners facing multiple pressures.
"My guess is none of them go into it thinking, 'I'm going to game the system,'" Chapin said. "It's a business decision."
Chapin and others said their main enforcement hammers are high interest rates and forfeiture. They can't do much more, although the list of debtors that counties publish each winter is a powerful motivator. "You'd be amazed at the number of people who will pay before that, because they don't want their names published," said Ramsey County property tax manager Chris Samuel.
The state Department of Revenue has a team of 250 people tasked with hunting down those late on their income taxes or sales taxes. Not so with property taxes.
There is no personal liability for real estate tax in Minnesota, according to Robert Keena, a real estate and construction lawyer at Hellmuth & Johnson. In other words, counties can't garnish wages or get a deficiency judgment against the taxpayer.
Property owners delay for a variety of reasons, including cash flow troubles, pending sales and probate disputes, Keena said.
In theory, the foot-dragging can go on for years. Delinquent taxpayers used to have three to five years before the state could take their land, a time frame recently shortened to three years for all properties. In targeted areas of poverty, the state can forfeit tax-delinquent land in one year. Taxpayers can buy more time at the end of the period by filing for a "confession of judgment," triggering a payment plan that enables them to pay off the debt over five or 10 years.
Back in Cambridge, Stan Gustafson, the city's economic development director, said he's trying to take the long view on Lance Johnson's back taxes. Yes, the delays disturb him, he said, "but we've been watching this for years." The city wants the lots developed, not growing weeds. And counties don't want the land back.
"We work with developers as best we can," Gustafson said. "It's just a group effort. It would be nice to have the taxes paid on a semiannual basis but it doesn't always quite happen that way. We can't force them to build."
Johnson said he doesn't want to be seen as a bad guy.
"To me and other people, this is a business," he said.
Meanwhile, because Johnson hasn't paid the taxes, the land and taxes are still in the name of the bank he bought the parcels from, the former Security State Bank in Howard Lake that's now Citizens Alliance Bank in Clara City. The bank says it's not responsible for the taxes.
Retired restaurant owner Lester Meltzer and his L.H. Meltzer LLC owe $148,000 on numerous parcels in Ramsey County, including some vacant parcels near his Summit Avenue home. Meltzer wouldn't comment on why he wasn't paying.
Neither would Nanette Pikovsky of Pikovsky Management Co., Pik Terminal Co. and Pik Terminal Inc., which together owe Ramsey County more than $1 million in back taxes on a half dozen parcels in Roseville. Roseville city manager Patrick Trudgeon said the city is in the process of buying portions of the land, once a trucking terminal, for a right of way in the Twin Lakes Development Area west of Rosedale mall.
"I had heard she was intending to pay the county," Trudgeon said.
Near the top of the list of tax shrugs in Hennepin County is a trustee listed as the taxpayer for an old farm homesteaded by the Emory family 150 years ago. The family successfully sold much of the land for development, but owes more than $550,000 on the last seven acres, a chunk of land in Champlin forested with old oak trees. They successfully fought to lower the taxes, but have since been in limbo.
Trustee James Schutz of Madison, Wis., said the family has been unable to sell the land. The city hasn't helped, he said in an interview, because it zoned the land for offices and there are no takers for that. Schutz said he's talked to the city about creating a park, but that didn't generate interest. He's now exploring donating the land as a tax write-off. If it had to, the family could pay off the taxes, he said.
"We're kind of stuck with an albatross," Schutz said.
Rodney Miller, a Minnetonka carpenter who heads RAM Properties, explained his debt as a cash-flow problem. He said he can't charge enough rent for his Hopkins office building, and can't find a buyer. The property taxes are 42 percent of his gross income, he said.
"In order to keep it up, the county's kind of the last on the list," Miller said.
Neil Thompson, a Minneapolis bankruptcy attorney, owes $113,770 on a small office building on 23rd Avenue South that houses his law office and other tenants. He could pay the debt, he says, but poor city services don't justify the tax bill.
Thompson said that when a car ran through the front of his building seven years ago, landed in an office and then drove away, he could not persuade the Minneapolis police to go to the home of the suspect in Powderhorn Park. The county cannot come after him personally for the back taxes, he said, because under the law the property, not the individual, owes the taxes. So he's not paying.
"Why would I do that when it's not going to produce any benefit for me?" Thompson said. "Eventually either the bank will take it or the county will take it and it will be somebody else's problem."
Jennifer Bjorhus -- 612-673-4683
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