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Back in Cambridge, Stan Gustafson, the city’s economic development director, said he’s trying to take the long view on Lance Johnson’s back taxes. Yes, the delays disturb him, he said, “but we’ve been watching this for years.” The city wants the lots developed, not growing weeds. And counties don’t want the land back.
“We work with developers as best we can,” Gustafson said. “It’s just a group effort. It would be nice to have the taxes paid on a semiannual basis but it doesn’t always quite happen that way. We can’t force them to build.”
Johnson said he doesn’t want to be seen as a bad guy.
“To me and other people, this is a business,” he said.
Meanwhile, because Johnson hasn’t paid the taxes, the land and taxes are still in the name of the bank he bought the parcels from, the former Security State Bank in Howard Lake that’s now Citizens Alliance Bank in Clara City. The bank says it’s not responsible for the taxes.
Retired restaurant owner Lester Meltzer and his L.H. Meltzer LLC owe $148,000 on numerous parcels in Ramsey County, including some vacant parcels near his Summit Avenue home. Meltzer wouldn’t comment on why he wasn’t paying.
Neither would Nanette Pikovsky of Pikovsky Management Co., Pik Terminal Co. and Pik Terminal Inc., which together owe Ramsey County more than $1 million in back taxes on a half dozen parcels in Roseville. Roseville city manager Patrick Trudgeon said the city is in the process of buying portions of the land, once a trucking terminal, for a right of way in the Twin Lakes Development Area west of Rosedale mall.
“I had heard she was intending to pay the county,” Trudgeon said.
Near the top of the list of tax shrugs in Hennepin County is a trustee listed as the taxpayer for an old farm homesteaded by the Emory family 150 years ago. The family successfully sold much of the land for development, but owes more than $550,000 on the last seven acres, a chunk of land in Champlin forested with old oak trees. They successfully fought to lower the taxes, but have since been in limbo.
Trustee James Schutz of Madison, Wis., said the family has been unable to sell the land. The city hasn’t helped, he said in an interview, because it zoned the land for offices and there are no takers for that. Schutz said he’s talked to the city about creating a park, but that didn’t generate interest. He’s now exploring donating the land as a tax write-off. If it had to, the family could pay off the taxes, he said.
“We’re kind of stuck with an albatross,” Schutz said.
Rodney Miller, a Minnetonka carpenter who heads RAM Properties, explained his debt as a cash-flow problem. He said he can’t charge enough rent for his Hopkins office building, and can’t find a buyer. The property taxes are 42 percent of his gross income, he said.
“In order to keep it up, the county’s kind of the last on the list,” Miller said.
Neil Thompson, a Minneapolis bankruptcy attorney, owes $113,770 on a small office building on 23rd Avenue South that houses his law office and other tenants. He could pay the debt, he says, but poor city services don’t justify the tax bill.
Thompson said that when a car ran through the front of his building seven years ago, landed in an office and then drove away, he could not persuade the Minneapolis police to go to the home of the suspect in Powderhorn Park. The county cannot come after him personally for the back taxes, he said, because under the law the property, not the individual, owes the taxes. So he’s not paying.
“Why would I do that when it’s not going to produce any benefit for me?” Thompson said. “Eventually either the bank will take it or the county will take it and it will be somebody else’s problem.”
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683