SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah judge has approved a plan to use threats of eviction to wring $2.2 million in back taxes out of a polygamist sect on the Utah-Arizona border.
Third District Judge Denise Lindberg last week ruled that a court-appointed accountant can threaten eviction to try to get residents of the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., to pay up.
The United Effort Plan communal land trust was once run by Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist LDS Church. Utah took control of the trust in 2005 and appointed Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan as its manager amid allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs.
The FLDS has largely refused to cooperate with Wisan. That includes refusing to pay its property taxes directly to him and instead paying county authorities directly.
Court papers filed by Wisan's attorney, Jeff Shields, show tax delinquencies on 132 land parcels have grown steadily since 2008 and now total $2,206,461. More than $1.6 million is owed to Arizona's Mohave County and more than $535,000 is owed in Utah's Washington County.
Not all the delinquent taxes are owed by FLDS members. Some nonmembers who live in trust homes also haven't paid, court papers say.
Authorities in both states can begin to sell off the properties in 2013, according to Lindberg's ruling.
It's not clear how many residences or businesses might be affected by tax sales. The twin towns are not formally subdivided, with each parcel holding multiple structures. Some trust properties are also vacant. In the past, church members pooled their assets to pay the tax bill.
Wisan and Shields sought court permission to threaten eviction in October, saying they feared the property would be lost to foreclosure sales, gutting the value of the $114 million trust's assets. Lindberg agreed last week, saying "the tax situation of the trust is at such a crisis level that it requires strong affirmative action by the court to protect and preserve UEP trust assets."
Under Wisan's plan, those who don't pay would be evicted and replaced with other qualified trust beneficiaries who are willing to comply with the rules, including paying monthly occupancy fees.
"Our goal is not to evict a single person," Shields said Thursday. "Our goal is to have the people who are already there to pay. There are more beneficiaries than there are houses ... the guy who is willing to pay the taxes ought to be able to get one."
Shields said letters detailing the plan and its consequences should go out before the end of the year. The effort to collect has to begin now, so that money can be collected well before the 2013 deadline, he said.
Wisan successfully threatened to evict senior church leaders for nonpayment of taxes back in 2006.
Salt Lake City attorney Rod Parker, who represents the FLDS, agrees that taxes should be paid, but objects to the plan.
Parker contends it violates a February federal court ruling that the state's takeover and management of the trust are unconstitutional. A judge ordered the trust turned back to church leaders. The ruling is being appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
The FLDS Church also doesn't believe that the money collected would actually be used for taxes and question how property sales profits, monthly housing fees and other revenue taken in by the trust since 2005 have been used. Sect members believed some of that money had been earmarked for taxes, Parker said.
"There's a complete lack of trust there," Parker said.
Shields said the trust has paid some taxes since the 2005 takeover, although he couldn't immediately say how much.
In her ruling, Lindberg states she's not sure the appeals court will settle the matter before the properties become eligible for tax sale.
Court papers show trust is currently more than $5.5 million in debt, much of it owed to Wisan, his attorneys and other firms hired for trust management work. Shields said that amount is separate from the past due taxes.