City tax sale list is a hall of shame

Fur coats, trips and other treats for the mayor? At least $15,348.

Political poll for City Council member? $12,500.

City property taxes? Priceless.

Or, rather: Unpaid.

The free-spending Ronald Lipscomb, the developer whose gifts to Mayor Sheila Dixon and Councilwoman Helen Holton figure in the indictments against all three of them in the City Hall corruption scandal, seemed to have suddenly misplaced his checkbook when it came to the kinds of payments actually required by law.

Lipscomb's Doracon Contracting - which prosecutors say got tax breaks because of his cozy relationship with city officials - owes the city about $27,000 in unpaid property taxes on its 3500 E. Biddle St. offices. Several other properties in Lipscomb's name also have city liens against them.

They are among the thousands of debts slated for auction next month in the city's annual tax sale, in which investors can buy the liens, try to recoup them and, if they can't, start foreclosure proceedings on the properties.

Doracon has not paid its 2008-2009 property taxes on its headquarters, said Henry Raymond, chief of the Bureau of Revenue Collections. Lipscomb did not respond to telephone messages left at his office.

Doracon is among thousands of businesses and individuals in arrears for property taxes, water bills or repairs the city made that typically are billed to the owner. The list of properties included in the sale, which is to take place May 18, was published in The Baltimore Sun on March 18 and in The Daily Record on April 1. A continually updated list is on the Web site, bidbaltimore.com.

As always, it makes for great perusing, a hall of shame of those caught with unpaid bills. Checking the property addresses, I came across hotels, churches, apartment buildings, restaurants, even schools. For extra schadenfreude, check out how well-represented certain condos are in the trendy, pricey crescent of land hugging the harbor from Federal Hill to Canton.

The list also reads as a portrait of the current economic woes besetting many in the city - the now- closed Senator Theatre is on the list for nearly $30,000 in unpaid property taxes.

Then there are the surprise entries - Johns Hopkins Hospital shows up in hock for nearly $2,800, the sum of seven separate bills for repairs on underground pipelines and tunnels, Raymond said. Imagine buying that lien and, if Hopkins refuses to pay it, foreclosing on property that the city says is worth $360,973,500 - 360,973,500, tax-exempt dollars, that is, since Hopkins is a nonprofit charitable organization.

"As large as Hopkins Hospital is," Raymond said, "it would probably be very easy for these small, minor bills to be lost in transit, or not get handled properly." (Gary Stephenson, a spokesman for the hospital, said staff is getting copies of the bills to resolve the issue.)

Raymond said mistakes also can happen on the city's end; a resident may have paid the bill, for example, but it accidentally was credited to the house next door. Sometimes outdated information remains on the books for years - I found one lien against the Gjerde family, longtime restaurateurs in the area, for a property that the family said it sold six or seven years ago. The current owner would not comment on the record.

Still, Raymond said that except for such glitches, those on the list are largely there for legitimate reasons: "To the best of our knowledge, these properties that are in the tax sale are there because we have not received payment for a bill."

Additionally, Raymond said, owners have ample time between when the list was made public and the May 18 date of the auction to pay up or prove that they have, thus getting their properties removed from the sale.

Last year, the city sold about 9,000 of the 10,177 liens up for sale, making $22.7 million, according to Raymond. The amount of revenue has gone up in recent years: in 2007, the city made $17.1 million on the sale; in 2006, $14.8 million.

As for those still on the list, who knows what their explanation is - calls I made to several organizations and companies listed as owners of properties that are included in the sale were not returned, including to H&S Properties Development, which has partnered with Lipscomb to develop upscale Inner Harbor East complexes. The owner of a number of properties in the sale is listed as Harbor East Parcel B, one of the projects that Lipscomb had an interest in and that received a tax break known as a PILOT - for payment in lieu of taxes.

Looks as if some people might be taking the whole "in lieu of taxes" thing a little further than intended.


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