Travesty in Arizona: Disabled Vet Loses His Home over $236 in Unpaid Taxes
In 1991, Air Force veteran Jim Boerner suffered "spinal and brain injuries" during a training exercise at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. Until recently, he had been the proud owner of a mobile home in a Mesa, Arizona mobile home community. He "loves his neighbors" there and "brings flowers to widowed neighbors on Christmas, Easter, and Mother's Day," Rebekah L. Sanders of the Arizona Republic writes.
He had purchased the home, his "nest egg," as he refers to it, for a sum somewhere just north of $30K, according to the article.
Now, at age 49, he is on the verge of being evicted by the new owner of that mobile home, which was seized by the government for Boerner's having been delinquent on his taxes — to the tune of an unpaid amount of $236. The home's buyer, named Lester Payne, purchased the home at auction for the trifling sum of $4,400.
Calling this purchase a "steal" may be more literal than our more colloquial use of the term.
We should be clear. This is not the legal confiscation of a bank-owned item, like a car or a home, due to a breach of contract for required payments. This was a government deciding that, due to $236 of unpaid taxes, it had the right to confiscate a ~$30K home owned outright by an individual, then selling it to the highest bidder and pocketing the proceeds (which were roughly 15% of the initial purchase price).
This, in any other circumstances, would rightfully be declared the theft of this man's property. A "steal," indeed.
This is not to say that this is "illegal." In fact, it appears to be a quite legal seizure of Boerner's property by the local Maricopa government in accordance with local law and a legal purchase by Lester Payne. But we should be able to say, with absolute moral clarity, that nothing about this is right or just.
The events leading to this outcome seem to have hit even the Maricopa County treasurer, Royce Flora, by surprise.
"If we can't figure out this maze, how is [Boerner] expected to?" Flora asks.
The way tax liens work, in Maricopa and myriad other counties across the United States, is that such "tax-lien auctions help local governments collect unpaid taxes that are needed to fund schools, law enforcement and roads." But Maricopa has an exception that treats mobile homes differently from a typical "single-family home." In the case of the latter, "owners have two years to pay delinquent taxes before the tax lien is auctioned. And an auction winner has three years to collect the tax payment, plus interest, from the taxpayer before being allowed to foreclose and take ownership of the home."
With mobile homes, these auctions can take place "the day after a tax payment is due." But in practice, the Maricopa Treasurer's Office "allows 30 days after a tax payment is due before declaring it delinquent" and "another 30 days before notifying the Sherriff's Office," which "decides which mobile homes to auction."
That's where the broader problem of this incident is exposed. The law, itself, is fundamentally broken and requires revision, and this should be a point of agreement among conservatives and even the leftist-of-Left.
Is a mobile home any less a "home" for Americans unable to purchase a typically more expensive home that can be arbitrarily categorized as a "single-family home"? As a matter of pure principle, the poorer owner of a mobile home should enjoy the same tax leniency that a more prosperous owner of a "single-family home" enjoys, as the two "homes" serve the same function for those two Americans.
Then there's the more singular problem with this case. On June 13, after a visit from a sheriff's deputy who said he was "perilously close" to losing his home for unpaid taxes, Boerner called to make payment. He was told by two county employees that the "deadline" for payment was "weeks away." Recordings made by the county prove that he was told, "There's nothing serious you would need to be worried about as far as the home being in any danger or anything like that." Boerner specifically asked if he would be kicked out by June 30 (days do matter on a fixed income, to be sure), and he was told, "I would imagine not ... I don't see anything in my comments saying they're going to."
Boerner was told that he owed $641 in total, $405 of which was for the previous year. When Boerner paid online, he said he recalled only that he owed $405 immediately, which is what he paid — leaving him $236 delinquent on his 2018 taxes.
In truth, the auction of Boerner's home by the Sherriff's Office had already been scheduled for June 20. That's when Lester Payne purchased it for $4,400. When he visited Boerner to tell him that he'd purchased the home and asked when he would vacate the property, Boerner was understandably stunned. Payne told him he could buy back the home, but he would not accept less than $30K, which was "nearly as much as Boerner had spent on the home."
Then, after what we can assume was a heated back-and-forth between the two, Payne upped the price of repurchasing the home to $52K, telling Boerner that if he didn't pay, Payne could "haul the home away at night." "It's been long enough for you to try to buy the home," Payne texted. "I'm starting [the] eviction process now."
Maricopa County treasurer Flora is currently arguing that the sale should be reversed due to Boerner having been given the wrong information by the Sheriff's Office, and because the Sherriff's Office typically doesn't auction "until a year or more of late taxes rack up," so it's curious that it would moved so quickly to auction in this case. All fair and valid points. To his credit, Flora personally offered $15K to repurchase the home for Boerner.
Lester Payne is reportedly having none of that. He's "keeping the home," he says. "My grandma needs a house. She likes the [mobile home] park."
I don't mean to portray this Lester Payne as a villain, though his own actions and statements certainly seem to do the job. And I don't know this Jim Boerner from Adam, so I'm not making a moral defense of his character.
But these facts do stand:
Exhibit A: Jim Boerner is a disabled veteran of the United States Armed Forces. As such, he is entitled to his disability payments and to live on them insofar as he's able, and everything in this story suggests that he made efforts to reasonably do so. He even made payment in the last month to cover the previous year's back taxes of $405.
Exhibit B: Boerner's living in a mobile home, due to his meager financial circumstances, should not subject him to less tax leniency than someone who lives in a $100K, $200K, or $1M single-family home. Uniformity in confiscatory tax law is, as Alexander Hamilton once observed in Federalist 35, "the surest bond of sympathy" among Americans, meaning that tax law should equally "affect the proprietor of millions of acres as well as the proprietors of a single acre." This law unjustly holds the poor to a different legal standard from those for the proprietors of more wealth, plain and simple.
Exhibit C: Both Payne and the Maricopa government sought to profit from Boerner's extremely mild delinquency in paying taxes. There is nothing in this story to suggest that Boerner would have never paid the $236 he owed and nothing to suggest that he would not have paid the $236 quickly if he had known that his home would be seized by the government and sold in a fire sale to a man who apparently has no qualms about making a disabled veteran homeless in order to make a healthy profit by buying the property the government stole, or vengefully harboring a grudge for "calling his family nasty names," and for the benefit of "Grandma," who "likes the park" where this disabled veteran planned to live out his days.
I'm not much on nationalized pressure on local issues, but if state and local jurisdictions are indeed the "laboratories of democracy," then a public outcry should determine that nothing like this should ever happen again, anywhere, at the very least. As far as the best possible outcome, this sale should be reversed on the grounds that Maricopa offered incorrect information to Boerner, and the law should be changed moving forward to avoid any such thing happening ever again. Toward those ends, there are measures that we can take, according to the fine reporting by Rebekah L. Sanders of the Arizona Republic:
Contact the veteran
Offers of help or encouragement can be sent to Boerner through his attorney, Curtis Ensign, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-266-3300.
Tell AZ officials what you think
Rep. Bob Thorpe held a mobile-home stakeholders meeting Thursday to discuss changes to the law so that mobile homes are treated the same as single-family homes and other reforms. Contact Thorpe at 602-926-5219 or https://www.azleg.gov/emailazleg/?legislatorId=1872.
Rep. Anthony Kern is also interested in the issue. Contact him at 602-926-3102 or https://www.azleg.gov/emailazleg/?legislatorId=1868.
Assessor Paul Petersen: 602-506-3406.
Sheriff Paul Penzone: 602-876-1000.
Treasurer Royce Flora: 602-506-8511.