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Friday, Nov. 18, 2016 04:59 pm

Enos Park group late on taxes

Owes more than $35,000

The redevelopment arm of the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association has fallen behind on property taxes and owes more than $35,000 for delinquent taxes, penalties, fees and interest on more than 70 parcels.

Taxes on the 73 parcels, which represent the bulk of properties that the organization plans to sell for development, were sold on Nov. 4. The sale of 2015 taxes that were due for payment this year doesn’t mean that the neighborhood group is in immediate danger of losing the land. Taxes must go unpaid for more than two years before land owners can lose parcels for failure to pay taxes. But not paying property taxes when due is cause for concern, city officials say.

“It’s a very troubling development,” said Ward 5 Ald. Andrew Proctor, who lives in Enos Park and learned of the tax sale from Illinois Times.

The tax sale came amid a city investigation into the operations of Enos Park Development, a limited liability corporation set up by the nonprofit neighborhood improvement association to acquire and resell property.

Michelle Ownbey, president of the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, acknowledges a cash crunch. The association had expected to receive a $140,000 grant from the Illinois Housing Development Authority last spring, she said, but has yet to receive the money. In addition, the association since last year has spent about $150,000 on renovations to a building on Enos Avenue that it re-acquired from an owner who had lagged on renovation and repairs, she said. Faced with the choice of fixing the building, which was an unexpected expense, or allowing it to be demolished, the neighborhood group chose preservation, she said.

When money becomes available, Enos Park Development intends to pay delinquent taxes, plus interest and fees, so that it can retain ownership of the properties, Ownbey said.

“We’re certainly not happy about the current situation,” Ownbey said. “We wish we had the money upfront and didn’t get stuck paying interest.”

Adding to the financial crunch is the city’s delay in approving an ordinance to provide $153,000 in tax-increment financing funds to acquire five parcels. The acquisition is on hold pending an investigation by the city inspector general, which Mayor Jim Langfelder says he suggested after the city could not immediately answer a question recently raised about whether one of the five properties up for purchase had already been bought with TIF money.

It turned out that the property hadn’t been previously purchased with public money, Langfelder said, but incident showed the need for the city to have more information about property transactions in Enos Park funded by public money. The city now is looking at property transactions dating back five years, when Enos Park Development began purchasing land with TIF money.

“What it comes down to is ensuring that procedures are in place,” Langfelder said. “The bottom line is, what we’re trying to do is develop the procedures over there.”

In the past, Enos Park Development has bought property with TIF funds, then resold parcels for less than the acquisition price and used monies from sales to pay property taxes and other expenses, Ownbey said. Some city officials have raised concerns about selling land for less than market value, Ownbey said, but that’s done to ensure that buyers will comply with design and development standards set by the neighborhood group.

Ownbey said that Enos Park Development has given the city a list of all properties purchased, the price paid, and, in cases of properties that have been sold, the identities of purchasers and prices paid. There has been no improper spending, she said.

Under former Mayor Mike Houston, the city council approved annual TIF allocations of $250,000, with the city requiring few details on properties after acquisitions were made. Langfelder says that he wants to know more about what happens to properties after they’re purchased with TIF money. He also said that he’d like to see more development as opposed to land acquisitions.

“We need to do more building and less purchasing of properties,” Langfelder said. “That’s what we need to focus on.”

Proctor and Langfelder said that the city should consider holding properties for development in Enos Park and elsewhere instead of having a private group acquire land. Both pointed out that no taxes would be due if the city owned the land. During his 2015 aldermanic campaign, Proctor said that he’d like to see the city establish a citywide land bank that would hold property for redevelopment.

Proctor said he doesn’t want the city to use TIF money to pay overdue property taxes. Langfelder said that TIF money is already being used to pay taxes, that the neighborhood group uses proceeds from sales of property purchased with TIF money to pay taxes on land it still owns.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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