A church in the Hill bought a new building but forgot to register it as a nonprofit until a shocking summons arrived: Pay up thousands in back taxes or face foreclosure.
A minimum-wage laborer watched his back car taxes go up, for years during which he no longer even owned the vehicle.
And the general manager of a small business faced a $600 tax bill because he failed to send in his commercial property declaration.
These besieged taxpayers sought relief, at the most recent regular monthly meeting of the Board of Alders Tax Abatement Committee.
Committee members, led by the chair, Fair Haven Alder Ernie Santiago, balanced the needs of a cash-strapped city with compassion as these and seven other financial supplicants came before them at City Hall.
Their tales of back taxes each became a short story in itself revealing glimpses of the daily struggles many New Haveners face, from foreclosure, insufficient wages, bankruptcy, and illness, to broken relationships and furnaces.
Three of those stories follow — along with the factors the alders took into consideration before voting on whether to grant tax forgiveness. All these decisions now advance to the full Board of Alders for a final vote.
Even God Must Register With The Assessor
St. Mary’s U.F.W.B. Church, established in 1970, had for many years been serving its 220 parishioners at 49 Goffe St. When Yale University offered to buy the property, and the church accepted, the trustees of the church were off on a search to find a new house of worship.
In 2016 they found a modest white building with a deep set-back at 24 Kossuth St. in the Hill that fit the bill.
As the church’s financial trustee, May Gardner-Reed, took her seat in front of the committee members at the hearing this past Tuesday night, she explained that the name of the seller was Religious, LLC.
“In my mind it was [a] religious” organization, and therefore the property already tax-exempt, she said. “But it wasn’t. They did pay taxes.”
The cost of Reed’s mistaken assumption was not brought home until the church a received a summons demanding $6,000 in back taxes. To avoid foreclosure, the church immediately paid $3,142, or half the back taxes due.
However, it still did not get around to registering as a non-tax-paying church until 2018, by which time another $7,499 was due.
“Please forgive us for not filing tax-exempt status when we should have,” Reed pleaded.
Morris Cove Alder Sal DeCola asked Reed if the church was looking for, in addition to forgiveness of the more recent unpaid taxes, a return of the $3,142 that had been paid in 2016.
“No, we’re good,” Reed replied.
The alders were sympathetic. Don Hayden, a fiscal analyst on the alders’ staff, reminded them that also in play were municipal expenses incurred when the city pressed for foreclosure.
DeCola said he was impressed that Reed had not asked for reimbursement of the previously paid half year of taxes, just forgiveness of the subsequent unpaid amounts.
In the end the alders voted as Hayden had suggested: forgiveness and to return what had been paid, less the fees.
“You don’t get unless you ask,” Reed noted.
Watch Out For That Mercedes. Especially If It’s A Lemon
Chaz Jones has had a tough run recently.
As he waited for his turn to go before the committee, he said he has lost three houses in foreclosure, one in New Haven, one in Hamden, and one in Georgia. He was working minimum wage jobs, kept on receiving back taxes notices, saw no light at the end of the tunnel, and would not have been taking his seat in front of the alders had a friend not told him that was a place to go for some relief.
In response to Santiago’s invitation to make his pleas, Jones said simply that it is an absolute hardship for him to face $11,000 in back taxes on several vehicles, the most grievous one being a Mercedes, which he owned for only three months.
“I’m willing to pay the back taxes, but not the interest,” he said. That interest, 18 percent a year, adds up rapidly. In Jones’s case it was now $7,722 on $4,061 in unpaid car taxes going back to 2005.
“That’s because of the Mercedes,” said Santiago.
“I only owned it for three months,” Jones said, back in 2006. He described the car as a total lemon. He returned it to the dealer. “But he didn’t return the plates,” Jones claimed.
Quinnipiac East Alder Gerald Antunes asked Jones to confirm when he bought the car. It was 2006. Then Antunes asked him to produce the “carfax” to trace ownership, which he did.
“This ‘carfax’ says you owned it for nine years, in California,” noted Antunes, a retired police captain.
Jones: “That’s someone else. I never lived in California.”
Santiago: “We’re trying to help you.”
Jones: “I only had it for three months.”
Antunes: “Problem is the car stayed in your name.”
Jones: “Yes, I thought the dealer would turn in the plates. I was young.”
The alders did some deduction of the Mercedes portion of the back taxes and asked Jones whether, if the interest were forgiven, he could come up with approximately $2,600.
Jones said that was steep: “I can only do $2,000.”
The alders voted for interest forgiveness and to permit him to pay $2,000. They accepted he did not own the Mercedes during all those taxed years.
“You have till March 8, and if you don’t pay, it goes back to $11,000,” Santiago gently warned Jones.
“I came here as a man. I’m trying,” Jones said, and quietly left the chamber.
It’s Your Responsibility, Not The City’s
Mark Kowalski is the general manager of City Lights Auto Sales, a modest quarter-block yard on Grand Avenue at Bright Street. His business rents the space. The mechanics use their own tools, not City Lights’s.
In short, there is very little commercial property to declare.
So when Kowalski received a bill for approximately $600 in commercial property tax last year, he came downtown, contested it, and succeeded in having it reduced to $24 and change.
That was why he was surprised to find a notice telling him that $600 was overdue for 2018.
“I’m here to dispute what they arbitrarily gave me,” he told the alders. “My argument is if the past was zero, why wasn’t this year’s the same?”
To Kowalski’s surprise, Hayden interjected into the discussion to say that an adjustment had already been made by the assessor. The amount indeed has been reduced again this year from $600 to $24.
“Great! We’ll pay that,” Kowalski declared.
Before he left the chamber, a brief back-and-forth ensued between him and Antunes about when, why, and to whom the commercial property declaration page is sent.
“The declaration page is your responsibility,” Antunes said.
“Businesses know that every two years they have to file,” Hayden added.
Lesson over, Kowalski left the chamber, a happy commercial property taxpayer.
Towards the end of the long evening, a frail elderly woman from Newhallville appealed for forgiveness of $424 in taxes and $946 in interest from vehicles taxed back from between 2002 to 2006 that somehow had stayed on the rolls. She was recovering from a stroke, she said, as well as incipient pneumonia. Her furnace is out. She said local government’s Livable City Initiative signed her up for a program that would give her a loan enabling her furnace to be fixed immediately, with payback decreasing the more years she remains in her house.
The hitch: LCI could not proceed if there were any outstanding taxes due to the city. Hence her appearance before the alders.
Upset to hear these circumstances, Santiago was reminded by Hayden that such is the regulation. The alders voted to fast-track their forgivenss on this one, and get that woman’s furnace fixed.
Of the 18 “orders” or individuals on the agenda, only about ten showed up to make their cases. Of those all received some forgiveness except an academic, post-doctoral couple seeking relief from approximately $400 in past due taxes.
“I don’t see any hardship here,” said Dwight Alder Frank Douglass, and his colleagues agreed with him.