This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A state-controlled polygamous sect's property trust owes more than $2.2 million in back taxes and, under a Utah judge's new ruling, people could be evicted from their homes along the Utah-Arizona border if they don't pay their bills.
But an attorney for the Warren Jeffs-led Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints said a federal court order may bar such a ruling and contends the issues can be resolved before a 2013 deadline.
In the latest chapter of the fraught relationship following a 2005 state takeover that spawned a long-running legal battle, court-appointed trust administrator Bruce Wisan says some residents haven't paid property taxes since 2008. The properties in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.,could go up for tax sale in less than 18 months if back taxes aren't paid. Wisan plans to evict debtors who don't make payment arrangements and give their homes to new residents who agree to pay both the taxes and an occupancy fee.
"I don't want to lose the whole trust," Wisan said. "The worst that can happen is everyone loses their homes. I don't want that to happen."
In a ruling issued last week, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg agreed, writing that "the tax situation of the trust is at such crisis level that it requires strong affirmative action by the court."
But FLDS attorney Rod Parker says Lindberg may have violated a federal appeals court order issued after a federal judge ruled the state's takeover was unconstitutional.
"Some of the things [Lindberg] is talking about in this decision are at the core of the religious issues that are in dispute," Parker said. He disagreed that the property tax situation is so dire that evictions may be needed to "protect and preserve" the assets of the trust, pointing out that the properties wouldn't go up for tax sale until 2013.
"There's no question that's a problem, but it's a problem that's still over a year away and we've got some time to work our way through it," he said. It's not only sect members who owe tax money, he said, pointing to tax owed on vacant trust land and by non-FLDS residents.
Parker said he hasn't decided whether or how to appeal the decision.
The state took over the United Effort Plan trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by FLDS trustees. Worth about $110 million, it holds nearly all the land and property in the two communities that comprise the FLDS home base.
Though they continued to live in trust homes, sect members began fighting the takeover in court in 2008, and early this year won a federal ruling that the state had acted illegally and the property should go back to the sect. The state appealed and, following a judicial tussle, a federal appeals court decided to temporarily keep the trust with the state but barred Wisan from making major changes until the appeal is decided.
Out of 176 parcels in the twin towns, 98 have at least some tax owing from 2008, and those numbers increased to 143 in 2010, Wisan said. He conceded that the uncertain fate of the trust has made non-FLDS and members alike nervous about paying taxes on homes a court might decide are no longer theirs.
The property tax situation is complicated on UEP property. Since land is held communally, there are often several homes on one parcel, and if one family isn't current on their taxes, the whole parcel is considered delinquent.
Wisan says he has to start the tax-collection process now to give people time to pay off the bills, which for some total up to $6,000 before fees and penalties. With former members reporting that FLDS leaders are asking members to give thousands to the church, Wisan said he knows families may be strapped for cash.
"I am willing to work with people. I am not demanding it on a date certain," Wisan said. He plans to send out notices by the end of the year and give people 30 days to work out some kind of payment arrangement. For those who don't, he plans to start eviction proceedings and give the houses to other people who are willing to pay the taxes and a $100-a-month occupancy fee.
"The hope is they will step up to the plate," Wisan said. "I'd just as soon not evict a single family, but I'm willing to evict if they don't conform."
It isn't yet clear whether the appeals court judges might view the plan as violating their order.
"It's hard to imagine that the [federal appeals court's] action or inaction would affect the sheriff's sale," said Val Oveson, Wisan's business partner.
This isn't the first time Wisan has floated the idea of evicting people. In 2008, he started proceedings to remove about 60 people who had not paid the $100-a-month occupancy fee. The FLDS members fought back in court, and the first eviction proceedings against Guy and Ilene Steed stalled when the sect entered settlement talks with the Utah attorney general. Those talks failed, but the eviction proceedings haven't been restarted.
Blake Hamilton, the Hildale city attorney who represented the Steeds in court, said it isn't yet clear how people might respond if eviction proceedings begin again.
"We'll have to see what happens," he said.
On another occasion in 2008, a Wisan employee tried to change the locks on homes that he says were empty. Both the employee and, later, Wisan himself were slapped with misdemeanor trespassing charges. Wisan's charge is still in limbo after a judge declared a mistrial this summer.
Wisan says this case is different because he's not asking for an occupancy fee but for money required by the counties.
"I can't control what other people do. This is an idea that may or may not work," he said. "I haven't received any other ideas or input so I'm running with what I can do."
The Polygamy Blog: sltrib.com/blogs/polygblog
A court appointed administrator plans to send out notices about past-due property taxes by the end of the month. Eviction proceedings could begin against residents who don't make some kind of payment arrangement by the end of January. It's not clear if the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints will appeal.