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After international outrage, veteran to keep home that was auctioned over $236 tax bill

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Sheriff Penzone speaks on the home seizure of disabled vet Jim Boerner at press conference on July 17, 2019, in the Downtown Phoenix.
Arizona Republic

A disabled veteran whose Arizona mobile home was seized and sold over a few hundred dollars in back taxes will keep his home.

Maricopa County officials brokered a deal Friday that will allow Jim Boerner to stay in his home.

The County Treasurer’s Office confirmed Boerner will not face eviction from the auction winner, who threatened to remove him.

County Attorney Bill Montgomery helped reach a deal with Boerner, the Treasurer’s Office and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.

Details on the agreement were still emerging. After a meeting Friday morning, Montgomery said Arizona statutes did not authorize any county official to invalidate the sale.

Reported earlier: Disabled veteran’s home sold at auction over $236 tax bill

Background: Disabled vet paid tax bill before home was auctioned — the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office didn’t know

“Nonetheless, County officials are committed to working with counsel for Mr. Boerner to assist him in keeping his home,” the County Attorney’s Office said in a statement.  “Additionally, County officials are working together to develop legislation and procedures to ensure no one similarly situated faces a loss of their home.”

Boerner’s plight captured national attention after a story by The Arizona Republic detailed how he lost his home and faced eviction over a few hundred dollars in back taxes — even though he already paid the bill.

Calls to help Boerner have been pouring in from around the world. People have expressed outrage that the county sold the home out from under a wounded veteran, whatever the reason. A GoFundMe page was established for Boerner this week.

Boerner paid the bill seven days before the Sheriff’s Office sold the home on June 20. But the Sheriff’s Office was unaware of the payment at the time.

Sheriff Paul Penzone confirmed his office didn’t learn about the payment until after the mobile home was sold. 

The county sought an opinion from Montgomery to decide if Boerner’s home was legally seized and sold or if the auction should be reversed.

Montgomery’s office said Friday the country owes a debt to Boerner and all veterans.

“We are a free country due to the sacrifices of veterans who have served our nation and Mr. Boerner is among their ranks.”

Sheriff, treasurer trade blame 

After learning his home was in jeopardy of being auctioned, Boerner made a $405.70 tax payment on June 13 to pay his 2017 property tax bill. That was seven days before the Sheriff’s Office put the home on the auction block.

Normally, the payment would have been enough to cancel the auction. But the Sheriff’s Office, which is charged with seizing and selling property to cure delinquent taxes, said officials weren’t aware of the payment until after the home was sold.

Penzone said his office followed proper policy in auctioning off the property, which was handled no differently than any other sale. 

From 2017: Some homeowners see prepaying property taxes as way to save this year and next

The Treasurer’s Office, which collects and administers taxes, says the payment was legally processed and the outstanding debt was paid on June 13, whether the sheriff knew about it or not.

What’s more, the treasurer said Boerner received a “final notice” stating he had until June 30 to pay off his total tax bill, including $405.70 from 2017 and another $235.97 for 2018. 

“In reality, it was paid seven days before (the home) was sold,” Deputy County Treasurer Ron Bellus said. “We believe the sheriff is on good grounds. He can reverse this sale.”

Penzone and Deputy Chief Henry Brandimarte reviewed the sequence of events at a news conference Wednesday, painstakingly laying out the timing of Boerner’s taxes, the due dates and notices.

They said Boerner was notified a year ago that his home would be sold in June and that his payment had not been recorded in the county record system on the day of the auction.

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Jim Boerner, a U.S. Air Force veteran, may lose his Mesa home over a problem with his property tax payment. Boerner says he paid the taxes but his home went to auction anyway.
Tom Tingle, The Republic | azcentral.com

Penzone laid blame for the situation on miscommunication to Boerner from Maricopa County call center officials, saying the Treasurer’s Office provided misinformation to Boerner in the days leading up to the sale.

Bellus denied the allegation, saying Boerner had the right information and acted accordingly. He said the Sheriff’s Office should have reviewed the records more thoroughly.

Boerner is unable to work because of spinal and brain injuries he suffered during a training exercise in 1991 at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.

He said Thursday he was trapped in a maddening bureaucracy.

“Why are there not double and triple fail-safe procedures for this?” he said, fighting sobs. “When you’re talking about taking away a man’s home? Why isn’t there better communication between the treasurer, who had my money, and the sheriff, who auctioned off my home? It is not my fault.”

Buyer wanted $52K for home 

The mobile home sold for $4,400.

The buyer, Lester Payne, bought it through a company called Advanced Dynamic Energy Limited.

Payne is a convicted felon with a record of several arrests. 

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Boerner figured he could pay $5,000, giving Payne a 16% profit. But Payne wanted more and upped the price. He made demands for $26,000, $30,000 and $52,000, according to text messages Boerner shared.

After the two men engaged in a dispute, Payne rescinded his offer and said he was no longer interested in selling.

He asked Boerner to leave the home, which was Payne’s right as the legal owner.

Treasurer offered $25K from own pocket

Just hours before the deal was struck, County Treasurer Royce Flora had negotiated a deal with the Payne family to personally buy back the mobile home for $25,000.

Now, he won’t have to. 

“Treasurer Flora was willing to pay for the repurchase of Mr. Boerner’s home because he is a strong believer in the constitutional guarantee of personal property rights,” Bellus said Friday. “He saw the injustice that was happening to Mr. Boerner and wanted it corrected. If government was unwilling to make that happen, he would do what he could.”

Flora for weeks has been offering his own money to get Boerner’s mobile home back. He first pledged $15,000.

On Thursday, he challenged Penzone to pledge $10,000 of his own to buy the mobile home.

Penzone did not respond to questions about the challenge.

County officials did not provide specific details about the deal to save Boerner’s mobile home, only that an agreement had been worked out.

Flora said he could not comment citing a request by the county attorney not to make any public statements.

Montgomery’s office did not elaborate on the deal.

Auctions ensure property taxes are paid

Tax-lien auctions help local governments collect unpaid property taxes that are needed to fund schools, law enforcement and roads.

In the case of single-family homes, 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.

‘Frivolous arguments’: Top ‘frivolous arguments’ the IRS has heard for not filing taxes

In the case of mobile homes, state law allows an auction to be held the day after a tax payment is due. In practice, there’s a little bit of a delay.

The Maricopa County Treasurer’s Office allows mobile-home taxpayers 30 days after a tax payment is due before declaring it delinquent and another 30 days before notifying the Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office decides which mobile homes to auction.

A detective visits the home to confirm its location, notifies the delinquent taxpayer, explains where to make a payment, warns that failing to do so could result in an auction and leaves a notice of sale, said spokesman Sgt. Bryant Vanegas. If a deputy can’t serve the taxpayer, the Sheriff’s Office publishes a notice in a newspaper.

Once a mobile-home tax lien is purchased, the buyer owns the home and can evict the tenants.

In Friday’s statement, the County Attorney’s Office said the case has prompted officials to change the system of property tax seizures and auctions.

“County officials are working together to develop legislation and procedures to ensure no one similarly situated faces a loss of their home,” the statement said.

Follow Rebekah L. Sanders and Robert Anglen on Twitter:  @RebekahLSanders and @robertanglen

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