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, Lindsay Whitehurts reports in The Salt Lake Tribune
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. [...more...]
United Effort Plan
The United Effort Plan (UEP) property trust was created by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) in 1942 on the concept of a “united order,” allowing followers to share in its assets.
FLDS members consider communal living — a principle known as the Law of Consecration and the United Order — an integral part of their religion.
But while the UEP was meant to be a good thing, ex-members claim cult leader Warren Jeffs — who despite being jailed for life still rules the sect with an iron fist — used the trust for his own purposes, as shown in this video clip.
Utah courts seized control of the trust in 2005 amid allegations by state attorneys that Jeffs and other faith leaders had mismanaged its assets. Ever since, sect members — particularly, but not solely, those who remain loyal to Warren Jeffs — have been fighting the state’s control of the trust, refusing to cooperate with the state-appointed trustee.
The FLDS sect members view the court-ordered reorganization of their property trust as a violation of their constitutional rights. In their October, 2008 lawsuit they argue that changes to the United Effort Plan Trust since the court takeover in 2005 have secularized it, violating their religious freedoms.
Numerous residents, current members of the FLDS, have refused to pay their property taxes.
Court papers filed by Wisan’s attorney, Jeff Shields, show tax delinquencies on 132 land parcels have grown steadily since 2008 and now total $2.2 million. 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.
Some of the sect’s ex-members have said they feel the state’s takeover of the property trust simply replaced one feudal system with another.
Last February a federal judge ruled that the state’s takeover of the sect’s property trust six years ago was unconstitutional. The ruling led to a battle between the federal judge and the state court judge who had approved the take-over.
After the state appealed, a federal appeals court decided in April to temporarily keep the trust with the state but barred Wisan from making major changes until the appeal is decided.
Wisan and Shields sought court permission in October to threaten eviction, saying they feared the property would be lost to foreclosure sales and gut the $114 million value of the trust’s assets.
Lindberg agreed, 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.