While hundreds of Warwick residents annually have their properties listed for a tax sale because of unpaid utility bills or taxes, some of the most egregious delinquents haven’t made the list or never had their water shut off.
Based on information obtained through an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request, the Beacon learned that the taxes and utility bills owed by the top 10 most delinquent payers amounts to about $1.5 million, or about $972,000 more than the $528,268.95 collected during this year’s tax sale on May 24, where 94 delinquent parcels were sold.
Of these 10 are (as of Aug. 2) five property owners that owe more than $100,000 in either unpaid utility bills, residential property taxes or a combination of both. Some of these accounts are owned by property management groups that encompass multiple businesses within the same parcel, and some are individual property owners of just one residence or business.
The most tax delinquent property in Warwick is the large commercial complex at 1245 Bald Hill Road – the plaza that contains Target, TJ Maxx/Home Goods and Harbor Freight, among other large stores. The property owner, listed as ESLP LLC, owes $520,328.66 in taxes and utility bills (water and sewer) as of Aug 2, 2019. This includes a debt of more than $447,000 that was incurred during a billing cycle between Dec. 2, 2016 and Feb. 14, 2017 that has, to date, gone unpaid.
According to the city’s Munis system, the majority of this debt is from a $278,000 sewer bill that was incurred during that cycle. Another $47,365 bill – with $25,634 of that coming from sewer charges – was left unpaid during the September to November billing cycle of 2017.
The Warwick Tax Collector’s office explained that the issue with the property pertains to a dispute over the complex’s water meter.
“The meter pit periodically floods, resulting in faulty readings. In addition, we had the meter tested which was found to be not capturing the full usage. All parties agreed that the meters should be relocated above ground inside Target and in the plaza,” a statement from the tax collector’s office reads.
The owner is reportedly in the process of seeking a contractor to remove the old meter and install the new meters, “at which time the bill will be readjusted to reflect a prorated amount dating back to the past due amount,” the statement reads.
The plaza’s property management company, Northstar Properties (based in Norwood, Mass.), did not respond to an earlier request for comment on this story.
Other properties on the list include the former Sheraton Hotel – now the Wyndham Providence Airport hotel – owned by Shiva LLC, which made its full payment of $287,667.46 in property taxes when it took over ownership of the parcel in 2017, but has racked up over $273,000 in property tax debt and nearly $20,000 in utility bills since.
Property management company Bald Hill Commons Association, which does business as General Mills Restaurant Inc. within the plaza located at 31 Universal Boulevard that houses businesses such as the Olive Garden Restaurant and Starbucks, has amassed a greater than $185,000 tax bill that dates back to June of 2016. The tax collector’s office indicated that a new owner had recently acquired the properties and was actively in the process of getting back into good standing with the city.
The property at 20 Centerville Road, owned by 20 Centerville Road Associates – an LLC owned by Christopher Stowe that also includes Supreme Court associate justice Frank Flaherty – has amassed a real estate bill over $122,000 that, according to the Munis system, dates back to 2014 with aggregate annual bills ranging between $20,000 to $27,000.
Flaherty, who is also a former mayor of Warwick, said during a recent interview that the office has amassed a large tax bill due to the upstairs offices in the building being vacant for long periods of time. He said the city and the building’s owner – the aforementioned LLC, of which Flaherty is a member – have worked out an agreement to pay off the debt over time.
“We never miss a payment, we just haven't been able to catch up,” he said, explaining that each lump sum payment they make goes toward the oldest outstanding bill. “The city has been good with us in terms of understanding it was vacant, and we've been good with keeping our agreements.”
Flaherty said that the second floor has been vacant since about 2008 and they have been unable to keep any tenants that have moved in – such as in 2015 and 2016 when tenants moved out due to the ongoing construction around the Apponaug Circulator project, he said.
The property was not included as part of the city’s annual tax sale, which would normally lists all properties that have outstanding real estate and utility bills that haven’t asked to be put on a payment plan and kept in good standing with those plans. An executive order from January of 2018 signed by former Mayor Scott Avedisian, obtained by the Beacon, declares that entities that become delinquent after establishing a payment plan would also be included in the tax sale.
The tax collector’s office included in their statement that 20 Centerville Road was left off the tax sale list this year because there was a pending purchase and sales agreement for the property. Flaherty confirmed that, after a similar deal fell through a few months ago, the LLC was in the finishing stages of selling the building. The taxes owed to the city would be taken from the assets of the sale, making the city whole.
“It's been a torture and struggle but we do it,” Flaherty said, “We're almost to the end of the road.”
Other properties on the list include individual property owners, some of which owe taxes as far back as 1991, and have been put on the list for the tax sale. While others – like one property on Brian Drive in the city with an overdue balance of over $74,000 – have entered into payment plans like the Centerville Road property.
Tax Collector Kyla Jones explained that repayment plans happen on a fairly frequent basis within the city, and that about 300 payment plans are currently set up in the city. To apply for one, all you have to do is go into the tax collector’s office and see one of the cashiers and inquire about setting one up.
“Things happen and we understand that, so we try to help them out as much as we can,” Jones said.
For real estate taxes, the office takes the balance that is owed, adds the estimated amount owed for the next year, takes a 25 percent down payment from that amount and then divides the remainder by 12, which will become the new monthly payment (with interest included) for the following year.
Utility bills are a little more complicated, and can be done in three, six, or 12-month plans.
The goal and strategy of the repayment plans, Jones said, is to get people current within a year, which wasn’t always the case in the past. She said payment plans used to not realistically reflect the overall debt owed – meaning in some cases people could barely be covering the interest incurred with their monthly payment, sticking them in a loop that would theoretically persist indefinitely.
“I would see these payment plans being made [in the past] and in my head I was like, ‘This isn't going to work.’ They were setting these people up for failure…The idea is to help you get out of a tough situation, not put you back in it.”
Jones said that the implementation of the new payment plan method has been ongoing for a couple years now. She said leniency was common at first because of the change, but now there is a strict two-strike policy – meaning if you set up a payment plan and fail to make your adjusted payments, you only get one more chance before you become eligible for the tax sale.
Jones said she has never been instructed to make any special exceptions for anyone who has gotten into tax trouble, and that applying repayment plans equitably has been her goal.
“I do stick to the plan because what is good for one is good for all,” she said.
All told, there are 507 parcels in Warwick that were delinquent on real estate taxes or utility bills as of June 26, 2019 – meaning they owe balances and have not set up a payment plan to address them. These parcels amount to a total of $1,404,528 in unpaid taxes to the city.