Cuyahoga County officials are ready to get their hands dirty.
It’s about time.
County Executive Ed FitzGerald recently announced that the fiscal officers will aggressively chase property owners who owe delinquent taxes. They plan to use nasty letters, public shame and foreclosure — the legal equivalent of breaking kneecaps.
To make the point and win some notice, the county released the “Dirty Dozen,” a list of the top 12 tax dodgers who collectively owe the county $7.7 million.
It’s certainly worthy of attention, though FitzGerald doesn’t deserve any special props. He is doing what any sane and responsible public official should do. But it is exactly what his predecessors failed to do. Going after ignored back taxes is the low-hanging fruit on the legacy tree of disgraced former Auditor Frank Russo and his pals.
The Dirty Dozen list, as you would expect, includes local and out-of-state developers whose projects here crashed, though that hardly excuses them.
Among them is Ken Lurie, a Cleveland developer who once won praise for his urban housing projects. He is No. 7 on the Dirty Dozen list.
The county says he owes $448,000 on his failed Cinema Park development in Warrensville Heights. He once sought out government-sponsored lending programs to get financing for lower-income buyers.
He recently told a WEWS Channel 5 reporter that he bears no responsibility for the tax bill because the project is in the hands of the bank after it went into foreclosure. It’s not a bad play for the camera, but it still leaves the property on the list.
The list also includes Cleveland developer and parking lot owner Lou Frangos. He owes $347,000 in back taxes on a property near Progressive Field.
It’s worth noting — at least for irony’s sake — that his brother is Gus Frangos, who runs the county’s land bank. This nonprofit agency assembles vacant properties and prepares them for a new life. The land bank’s funding comes from . . . wait for it . . . delinquent taxes recovered from people like Lou Frangos.
Though Lou Frangos ignored my call, Gus Frangos did not. He once worked for his brother’s company as general legal counsel. Gus told me he’s never been an owner and has no knowledge of its financial situation.
So how did Lurie and Frangos and the rest of the Dirty Dozen get away with not paying taxes for so long? That, of course, is a question for the government voters threw out of office last year.
“I just think the effort to collect taxes was lax, especially on the delinquent owners who owe large amounts,” said Wade Steen, the county’s top enforcer and fiscal officer. “It’s easy to collect the small amounts.”
I don’t have a lot of confidence that the county will be able to recover money from failed projects or owners who declare personal bankruptcy, such as former Northeast Ohio resident and shopping center developer John McGill. A Florida resident, he’s No. 1 on the Dirty Dozen list and owes the county $2.1 million.
Still, Steen said the program has already paid dividends. He said one property owner — alerted ahead of time that he was about to make the list — paid up in full to avoid the public scrutiny.
Chasing tax dodgers also means the county will have to get tough on do-gooders, namely churches. Mount Olive Development Corp. is No. 4 on the list.
Formed and controlled by the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church on Cleveland’s East Side, the development corporation owes a whopping $653,000 for taxes on a large undeveloped property near the church.
The church’s leader, the Rev. Larry Harris, had hoped to build a community center on the former Cleveland school property. But the church failed to win a tax exemption on the property because of slow-moving and incomplete plans and funding for the project, state tax documents show. Neither Harris nor the church’s lawyer returned my calls.
Steen said that the county is trying to establish early and stronger contact with people and institutions who fall behind to avoid the drastic steps that lie ahead for the Dirty Dozen.
But the county must get tough with all of them. Not doing so would be a lot harder on all of us, especially schoolchildren and the poor who need those tax dollars more.