SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah judge has approved a plan that calls for the eviction of members of a polygamist sect and others along the Utah-Arizona border unless $2.2 million in back taxes are paid.
Third District Judge Denise Lindberg ruled a court-appointed accountant can threaten eviction to try to get payment from residents of the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
Most of the property in the two cities is owned by the United Effort Plan communal land trust, which was once run by Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Utah took control of the trust in 2005 and appointed Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan as its manager amid allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs.
The FLDS has largely refused to cooperate with Wisan, including refusing to pay property taxes directly to him and has instead paid county authorities.
Court papers filed by Wisan’s attorney, Jeff Shields, show tax delinquencies on 132 land parcels have grown steadily since 2008 and 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. Authorities in both states can begin to sell off the properties in 2013, Lindberg ruled Dec. 14.
It’s not clear how many residences or businesses might be affected by tax sales. The twin towns are not subdivided, and in the past, church members pooled their assets to pay the tax bill.
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: “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. Our goal is to have the people who are already there to pay. There are more beneficiaries than there are houses,” Shields said. “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.
Salt Lake City attorney Rod Parker, who represents FLDS, agrees that taxes should be paid but objects to the plan.
Parker contends it violates a February federal court ruling that found the state’s takeover and management of the trust were unconstitutional. A judge ordered the trust turned back to church leaders. The ruling is being appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
The FLDS also questions how property sales profits, monthly housing fees and other revenue taken in by the trust since 2005 have been used. Sect members thought some of that money had been earmarked for taxes, Parker said.
“There’s a complete lack of trust there,” Parker said.