Kent County Land Bank Authority

New Kent County Open Government Project web page released; compare tax rates, schools, and transparency

Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance announced the release of its completely revitalized Kent County Open Government Project (KCOGP) web site. This site allows residents of Kent County to compare local tax rates, school district performance, and local government transparency. It also allows anyone to create and print out a Freedom of Information Act request to any unit of local government in the county.

“We’re very excited to release our Kent County Open Government Project web site,” said Jeff Steinport, spokesperson for the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance. “The new features are beyond anything we’ve seen for any taxpayer organization in Michigan. We’re proud of the hard work that went into the site and we know that it will be very useful for all Kent County residents.”

The new site, available at www.OpenGovernmentProject.org, allows anyone to view the tax rates for each township, village, and city in the county, as well which school districts overlap each local unit of government. This, combined with the ability to compare school district performance, allows residents to find the best schools at the lowest cost.

For instance, the KCOGP web site allows users to find the school district with the highest graduation rate in the county – Caledonia Community Schools. When the user views the details of that school district, the municipalities that overlap it can be compared according to tax rate. The lowest local tax rate in the Caledonia Community Schools District is Lowell Township, with the 77th lowest taxes in the county (out of 93 local taxing units).

The Kent County Open Government Project also rated each local unit of government in 24 areas of transparency, ranking them on how open they are and how much information they make available to taxpayers online. Each unit of government was ranked with a letter grade. The highest-ranking government in the county was the City of Wyoming, with a raw score of 22 and a letter grade of A. The lowest ranking local government was a tie between the Village of Sand Lake and the Village of Casnovia, both with a very poor score of 3 and a letter grade of F.

Some interesting statistics available on the Kent County Open Government Project web site include:

  • The highest taxes in the county are in the part of the City of Grand Rapids that overlaps Forest Hills Public Schools, with an average tax bill of $3,403 each year;
  • The lowest taxes in the county are in the part of Solon Township that overlaps Tri County Area Schools, with an average tax bill of $1,466 each year;
  • The school district with the highest graduation rate is Caledonia Community Schools, with a 95.11% graduation rate;
  • The school district with the lowest graduation rate is Grand Rapids Public Schools, with a graduation rate of 44.56%;
  • Wayland Union Schools spends the most per pupil in the county, spending $17,268 each;
  • Tri County Area Schools spends the least per pupil in the county, spending $9,387 each.

Sweetheart transfer of 160 tax-foreclosed properties to the taxpayer-funded Kent County Land Bank Authority by the City of Grand Rapids is bad for taxpayers and bad for city government

The Grand Rapids City Commission is due to vote this week on transferring more than 160 tax-foreclosed properties to the Kent County Land Bank Authority. This is a bad move for both taxpayers and for the City of Grand Rapids.

The Kent County Land Bank Authority, a taxpayer-funded real estate speculation entity, was formed by the Kent County Commission in 2011, but it began aggressively requesting special treatment from local government units last year in acquiring tax-foreclosed properties at far below market prices. Despite the fact that the Land Bank is a government entity that receives both direct and indirect taxpayer funding, David Allen, its executive director, was quoted last month as saying “I make no bones about it: We’re not a nonprofit; we’re a company. We’re a development company.”

As part of the proposed sweetheart deal, the City Commission of Grand Rapids purports to place a time limit on the Land Bank of 18 months to flip all of the properties it is receiving. However, the agreement between the Land Bank and the City has little in the way of teeth to enforce the timeline and it potentially would leave the City on the hook for failed Land Bank investments. The agreement, available online here, only states that the city “may” repossess the properties that the Land Bank fails to flip after 18 months. Furthermore, if the City decides to do so, it would be saddled with a clearly unwanted properties, including all the costs associated with owning such properties. No other consequence for a failure to abide by the agreement is included.

At a minimum, the City should add teeth to this agreement so that repossession is mandatory. In the case of such a failure by the Land Bank, the Land Bank should be on the hook for any and all costs incurred by the City in disposing of such properties. The proposed agreement is a sweetheart deal with the trappings of being all bark and no bite with a timeline that appears to force accountability, but has no real intent being invoked. It’s essentially meaningless with no serious enforcement requirements.

One of the allegedly "blighted" properties that the Land Bank will receive in a sweetheart deal - 49 Monroe Center NW, Ste 1B
One of the allegedly “blighted” properties that the Land Bank will receive in a sweetheart deal – 49 Monroe Center NW, Suite 1B

With the recent failures of City-granted tax breaks when promised jobs failed to materialize, it’s just good business for the City to ensure that promises made to taxpayers are kept and those who make those promises are held to account in the event that they don’t pan out.

Another important issue that taxpayers should consider is the impact of these property transfers on the budgets of both the County and other local governments. The Kent County Commission, after pressure from the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance, changed its policy on transferring properties to the Land Bank before the public auction and left the issue to local cities and townships. Because of that change, the City of Grand Rapids is considering this transfer to the Land Bank, again before the public auction and only for the amount of taxes owed on those properties.

As we’ve pointed out previously using the county’s own records, the public auction generally raises about 1.7 times the amount of taxes owed on tax foreclosed properties. This is good for the county because that additional money is transferred to the county’s general fund. However, because the City of Grand Rapids proposes to take more than 160 properties out of the public auction process, we expect the county to lose approximately $850,000 in revenue.

The impact doesn’t stop there. The Land Bank, while it owns properties, does not pay property taxes. This reduces revenue both to the City and to other local government, including schools. On top of that, once the Land Bank sells its properties, 50% of the property taxes collected for the next five years go to the Land Bank, a self-described “development company,” and not to the City, county, or schools.

Just what makes this self-described “development company” unique and deserving of special favors continues to escape us.

The City claims that the transfer of these properties fulfills a public purpose of “restoring blighted properties” and “providing affordable housing.” We’ve heard from several individuals who have, in the past, purchased homes at the public auction as a way of getting an affordable home, which they then fixed up and built equity. The City’s actions are having the opposite effect – it is reducing the availability of affordable homes by preventing average citizens from purchasing homes at a public auction. The auction, a fair and open process, is being replaced with an opaque process subject to cronyism and managed by a taxpayer-funded entity that is acting like a private company with virtually no public accountability.

We urge the Grand Rapids City Commission to reject the sweetheart deal, allow the public auction to proceed, and offer to transfer only those properties which are truly blighted and unwanted to the Land Bank, so it can fulfill its intended mission.

New Poll Shows Grand Rapids Tax Increases Face Steep Climb and Land Bank Lacks Public Support

The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (KCTA) commissioned a survey with JD Consulting from June 1-3 which found that there is little support for the proposed tax increases in the city of Grand Rapids. In a phone survey of likely off-year election voters in the city of Grand Rapids, 52.4% of respondents opposed raising taxes to pay for increased funding of pools with only 26.8% support and 20.8% without an opinion. The results show that if city officials and supporters hope to pass the measure, they will have to significantly turn out their supporters, convince opponents, and most of those who are unsure. KCTA does not intend to take a position on the proposed tax increase.

In addition, KCTA sought to determine the support for the Kent County Land Bank Authority and its activities with citizens in Grand Rapids and two suburban cities. KCTA first asked the question, “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement, Government should not offer what private businesses can provide?” 56.4% agreed that government should not and 43.6% disagreed and felt government should provide services in competition with private businesses. The second question asked if people supported the taxpayer-funded Land Bank acquiring properties directly from the city or if they should first go to auction and the highest bidder. The results were broken down separately for Grand Rapids, Walker, and Grandville. Support for the auction process in Grand Rapids was 47.4% versus 31.5% supporting direct acquisition by the KCLBA and 21.1% with no opinion. The cities of Walker and Grandville had similar results with 73% and 75% support for the auctions respectively versus 24% and 22% for direct acquisition and 3% and 4% with no opinion.

The results of the polling on the Land Bank show a clear understanding from the people in those three cities to allow for an auction process and equal opportunity of acquiring property for everyone. The results did not specifically ask the question of whether the Land Bank served a vital role in the county. Said KCTA spokesman Eric Larson, “The polling results tell us what we primarily already knew. People want a fair process to allow equal opportunity for the purchase of tax foreclosed property to allow small entrepreneurs, large developers, and non-profits to revitalize these lots. There is clearly very little concern from those outside of Grand Rapids of problems with undeveloped or foreclosed lots not being utilized in their communities. We have been very pleased with the restrictions that the county commission has put on the auction process with the Land Bank but are concerned still that cities like Grand Rapids could hand over property at minimum bid prices and end up hurting their bottom line since the property would not generate nearly as much tax revenue as it would if a private individual purchased it. Hopefully, cities and townships will be at least very judicious in handing over real estate to the Land Bank.”

Kent County Land Bank Changes are a Step in the Right Direction

In response to criticism from the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (KCTA) and a lawsuit by a group of local real estate professionals, the Kent County Commission last week approved some changes to how the Kent County Land Bank operates.

Previously, the Kent County Land Bank identified properties that it wanted to purchase from the County as part of the property tax foreclosure process. The problem that the KCTA first publicized is that the Land Bank received preferential treatment and was able to purchase properties before the public auction at prices far below market value. In addition, the Land Bank picked properties solely for the purpose of real estate speculation to fund its operations and not to address blight, as it was designed to do. The statute that created land banks clearly states that the Land Bank will not receive properties until after the public auction process, if any unsold properties are left. This is meant to address the problem of blighted properties which do not sell because they are too expensive to rehabilitate or pose environmental problems.

A lawsuit was filed by local real estate professionals in Kent County to enforce the law as it is written. The suit was dismissed at the Kent County Circuit Court level because the Court ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing. The issue of whether the law is being violated was not addressed and is yet to be resolved. We supported the lawsuit because we believe that affected parties should be able to sue when the government is breaking the law. The Court begged to differ and decided that essentially no one has standing to sue when the County government is breaking the law. The case is under appeal. The County’s Land Bank Study Committee claims that the legal issue has been resolved, but it has not. The real legal question was never addressed by the Court. There is still a significant, unresolved legal question as to whether allowing the Land Bank to receive properties before the auction process is completed is legal. (Review the statute yourself here. The relevant section is paragraph (6)).

It is KCTA’s position that the Land Bank deprives both local governments and the County government of much-needed tax revenue. Although some County leaders claimed that money received from the foreclosure process cannot be transferred to the general fund, our own Freedom of Information Act request showed that this is not the case. In fact, a significant amount of money is transferred from the foreclosure fund to the county’s general fund each year. (see here and here). In addition, when the Land Bank sells a property that it acquired from the county, 50% of the property taxes collected from that property are sent to the Land Bank for the next five years, further depriving the county and local governments of revenue.

Furthermore, last year the Land Bank was able to acquire properties for only the amount of taxes owed. Our previous work, using the County’s and Land Bank’s own documents, showed that the process in 2012 deprived the County of at least $1 million in revenue, which will need to be made up in other ways, either through cuts or higher taxes.

The changes to the process approved by the County Commission are an improvement. The process has been modified to move the decision on which properties the Land Bank may acquire from the County Commission to local cities and townships. This creates an additional step and allows local governments to weigh the pros and cons of each property transfer. Further, the Land Bank will otherwise be required to bid at the public auction for properties, which improves the process, but now creates a situation with the Land Bank’s public funds will be used to bid against private buyers. In other words, taxpayer money will be used against them.

We stand by the fact that the Land Bank is a solution in search of a problem. It was designed to reduce blight, yet it clearly has stepped way beyond those bounds. There is no significant problem to address that couldn’t be handled in other ways, such as through existing non-profit organizations. While the Land Bank justifies its purchases by claiming that there are quite a few properties that sell at the public auction but then revert back to foreclosed status, the statistics show that only four such homes (0.5%) were re-foreclosed between 2010 and 2012 out of a total of 734 foreclosed properties. The remaining 27 properties that were re-foreclosed were vacant land properties. It isn’t a problem that requires a new County-run bureaucracy that has a significant negative effect on the County’s budget. (See county-provided documentation of re-foreclosures here). It’s important to also note that none of these re-foreclosed properties were requested by the Kent County Land Bank last year.

The Land Bank should be limited to only handling truly blighted properties, not purchasing properties at a distorted, below-market rate solely for the purpose of funding itself. While KCTA supports the recent change, a better next step would be to limit the Land Bank’s mission to addressing problem properties that do not sell at any of the public auctions.

Kent County government loses hundreds of thousands of dollars due to preferential transfers to the Land Bank, faces deficit of $955,000, considers raising taxes

The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance previously pointed out that the Kent County government authorized the Kent County Land Bank Authority to cherry-pick prime properties that were slated for public auction due to tax foreclosure, short-circuiting the usual process and depriving county government of much-needed revenue. Now, after analyzing the financials of those preferential transfers, we’ve determined that county government is facing a deficit of nearly $1 million, much (if not all) of which is a result of preferential land transfers to the Kent County Land Bank Authority for government-run real estate speculation. Consequently, county government is now considering a tax increase to pay for shortfalls in the Veterans’ Affairs budget.

Background

When a property owner does not pay the required property taxes for several years, the county government forecloses on that property and takes possession. Normally, these properties go up for public auction to cover the unpaid taxes as well as other costs that the county incurs in the process. Most of these properties sell for more than the minimum bid, bringing in additional revenue to the county, which can then be spent on general county operations.

Normally, land banks across the state acquire property that no one else wants because of blight, limited usability of the property, or environmental cleanup problems. The intent behind the land bank statute is to allow counties a method for making these sorts of properties marketable again so that they do not sit vacant or pose a risk to the community. Indeed, the land bank statute mandates that land banks can only acquire property after the county holds its two auctions and there are still unsold properties.1

Cherry picking and government-run real estate speculation

This year, however, the newly-formed Kent County Land Bank Authority requested and received preferential treatment from the County Commission to cherry-pick prime properties that were slated to be publicly auctioned, and then acquired those properties for only the amount of taxes due to the county. Many of those properties were acquired by the Land Bank solely for the purpose of flipping and profiting to fund the Land Bank’s own operations. Not only did this deprive the county government of much-needed revenue, it shut out individuals and small business owners who normally purchase these properties for private investment. Make no mistake, these transfers to the land bank had nothing to do with rehabilitating properties that otherwise would not have been purchased by local investors. The county has entered into the business of real estate speculation.

An additional consequence is that 50% of the property taxes on flipped properties go to the Land Bank for five years, instead of local government, further depriving municipalities and the county government of revenue.

The 47 properties that the Land Bank acquired for only the taxes due totaled $420,000. The remaining properties that did end up going to auction had a minimum bid total of $977,100, but $1.64 million was raised at the public auction of those properties, resulting in a “profit” of $667,000 for the county. For those properties that did not sell at the first action, they were put up for a second auction with no minimum bid. Those properties brought in $363,400 for the county.

This year, the county needed to bring in $1.9 million to break even on the process. The total brought in was $2.42 million. Although the county did bring in more than it needed to, it lost significant further revenue due to the no-bid sales to the Land Bank.

To conservatively estimate how much the Land Bank properties would have raised in a public auction, we can look at the amount over the minimum that was brought in as a result of the August auction. Since the minimum total bids for those properties was $977,000 and they raised $1.64 million, we can see that the auction brought in 1.68 times more than the minimum bid. This means that, at a minimum, $285,000 in revenue for the county was lost due to the below-market price transfer to the Land Bank. However, since the Land Bank cherry-picked some of the prime properties for its preferential transfer, significantly more could have been obtained on several properties.

For instance, several properties would likely have sold for much higher multiples than 1.68. Examples include the following:

  • 5076 Montuak Dr. Taxes Due: $10,500. Market value: $150,000. Loss of $139,500.
  • 1306 Benjamin Ave SE. Taxes due: $7,875. Market value: $38,000. Loss of $30,125.
  • 1121 Crescent SE. Taxes due: $9,120. Market value: $32,000. Loss of $22,880.
  • 6930 84th St SE. Taxes due: $7,464. Market value: $59,900. Loss of $52,436.
  • 9524 92nd St SE. Taxes due: $7,255. Market value: $80,000. Loss of $72,745.
  • 3447 Raven SW. Taxes due: $4,700. Market value: $40,000. Loss of $35,300.
  • 2796 64th St SW. Taxes due: $10,440. Market value: $62,000. Loss of $51,560.

Being conservative, we can estimate that, at a bare minimum, the county lost out on revenue of at least half a million dollars, but it likely would have been as high as a $1 million.

Recently, the Kent County Land Bank Authority filed an affidavit from its Executive Director, David Allen, stating that the market value of just some of the properties it held was at least $1.4 million, meaning that our conservative estimate is likely low and that the county lost out on significant revenue, inevitably to be made up by taxpayers.2 The Land Bank, by its own admission, has deprived the county government of at least one million dollars.

County deficit and a potential tax increase

Coincidentally, in August the county revealed that it is looking at a $955,000 deficit for the current fiscal year.3 A significant portion (if not the entire amount) can be attributed to the Land Bank’s activities.

Now the county is exploring a new millage to pay for a deficit in the Veterans’ Affairs budget because the county can’t afford to provide critical service to veterans.4 The Veterans’ Affairs budget has a $40,000 deficit, which would easily had been covered if the County had simply sold its foreclosed properties through the usual process.

The Land Bank is a solution in search of a problem

The Grand Rapids Business Journal recently published a story showing that Kent County has the lowest number of foreclosed properties amongst large counties in Michigan. Kent county had an average of 130 tax foreclosures per year between 2006 and 2012 (out of 247,231 housing units). For comparison, Muskegon County had 269, Saginaw County had 687, and Wayne County had 10,427. Clearly, tax foreclosures are not a major problem for communities in Kent County, yet the Land Bank was formed primarily to “stabilize communities” and to reduce “blight.” We have to ask, what blight? The Kent County Land Bank Authority appears to be a solution in search of a problem. The Land Bank is causing more problems than it aims to solve.

This article is available in printable form here.

 

  1. MCL 124.755. Available online at http://legislature.mi.gov/doc.aspx?mcl-124-755. “A foreclosing governmental unit may not transfer property subject to forfeiture, foreclosure, and sale . . . until after the property has been offered for sale or other transfer under . . . the general property tax act . . . and the foreclosing governmental unit has retained possession of the property . . .” []
  2. In the affidavit Allen calls himself, under oath, the “President” of the Kent County Land Bank Authority, yet no such position exists. View the affidavit here: http://bit.ly/TFWF6s []
  3. http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2012/08/kent_county_budget_cuts_modest.html []
  4. http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2012/09/kent_county_considers_millage.html []

Kent County Taxpayers Alliance Announces Lawsuit Against Kent County Land Bank Authority for Violating State Law

Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (KCTA) announces that a lawsuit was filed against various Kent County government entities to stop the activities of the Kent County Land Bank Authority (Land Bank). KCTA has been working with several individual, organizational, and business entities to review the legality of the Land Bank’s purchase of tax-foreclosed property from Kent County government and has discovered that the preferential transfer of 44 properties was prohibited by state law.

“The state law that created land bank authorities is quite clear; the land bank may only acquire property either at an auction or after the auction process has completed,” said Jeff Steinport, a project manager with the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance. “The county government decided to short-circuit this process.”

KCTA pointed out previously that the county violated its own policy when it transferred the properties to the Land Bank. This lawsuit repeats that allegation as well as the allegation that the county violated state law in the process. The lawsuit aims to stop the preferential transfer of properties to the land bank and prohibit such transfers in the future.

According to state law, when the county forecloses on property that is delinquent on property taxes, it normally holds a public auction of that property to attain the greatest value for taxpayers. The Land Bank is authorized to bid on these properties, along with the general public. However, this year the Land Bank was given preferential treatment and allowed to acquire 44 properties prior to the public auction for only the amount of taxes owed. This significantly reduced the county’s revenue, by as much as a million dollars or more.

“In part because of the Land Bank’s purchase of these properties, county government is again looking at shortfalls and considering raising taxes,” said Steinport. He continued, “Taxpayers are getting the short end of the stick when the county is supporting a new bureaucracy that engages in property speculation, cronyism, and questionable legal practices.”

The named defendants in the lawsuit are Ken Parrish as Kent County Treasurer, the County of Kent, and the Kent County Land Bank Authority. The plaintiffs are Rusty Richter, a local real estate agent; Keystone Realty Group LLC and 3830G LLC, real estate investment companies; Jeff Fortuna and James Kane, individuals who normally invest in tax-foreclosed properties; and the Affordable Housing Coalition, a non-profit organization which purchases tax-foreclosed properties and puts them to productive use.

The Kent County Land Bank is Crony Government Gone Wild

Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (KCTA) announced its educational and electoral campaign opposing the Kent County Land Bank and the Kent County Commissioners who support it. KCTA has been active in Kent County for years fighting government corruption, inefficiencies, excessive taxation, and abusive election practices. This newest front represents their attempt to bring more sunshine on the new practices of this unaccountable government authority that is distorting local real estate markets.

The Land Bank is a local governmental authority that has as its mission the purchase of dilapidated and blighted properties that are over 3 years behind in paying property taxes. These properties are owned by the county and the Land Bank’s role is to return them onto the tax rolls as soon as possible. Land banks are used in 41 of Michigan’s 83 counties right now, most prominently seen in severely blighted counties like Genessee and Wayne.

Every year in mid August, the county holds an auction for the properties it has seized for failure to pay taxes. The goal of the auction is to create a market for private investors to purchase properties and to raise revenue to pay for essential county services like police, prisons, courts, roads, and parks. The Board of Commissioners’ own policy states that it is to maximize the return to the taxpayers on these properties which it has done for many years through the auction process.

However, on July 12, the Board of Commissioners, in a vote of 13-4, chose to hand over 40 properties to the Land Bank for just the minimum bid (the amount of delinquent taxes) before allowing private citizens to participate. Although it is impossible to know the exact amount that the county would have received for these properties it is very reasonable that they would have sold for five to ten times their minimum bid. This means that the nearly $500,000 that was spent by the Land Bank potentially ended up costing the county hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Said KCTA spokesman Eric Larson, “The actions of the Board of Commissioners in their collusion with the Land Bank shows a complete disregard by the majority of county commissioners of their fiduciary responsibility towards Kent County. At a time that the county is contemplating cutting sheriff deputies and other services it is leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions on the table which is revenue that it will need to make up either in higher taxes or cutting services. This Board action was reckless and shows that most of the commissioners are more comfortable giving property away for a steal to central planners than allowing the market of private investors at an auction to operate as it has for years.

“The whole point of the Land Bank is to be the buyer of last resort for properties that no one wants at the minimum bid. The ‘impossible to sell’ properties they purchased included a farm home on the bike path in Byron Center (2796 64th St), a beautiful residential property in Alpine Township (5076 Montauk Dr.), and numerous other properties that were about as dilapidated as the new Children’s Hospital. This is exactly the type of crony government action that KCTA has been fighting since our inception. We have an unaccountable board running the Land Bank with the ability to circumvent the normal auction process and purchase property before private entrepreneurs or current homeowners can – all at a massive financial loss to the taxpayers.”

KCTA plans to run a social media campaign targeted at eductating the public about this crony government practice and highlighting the role that the Kent County Board of Commissioners had in violating their own policy for maximizing the taxpayers’ return on these properties. KCTA has begun a fund raising campaign to air a radio ad explaining the Land Bank and the reckless actions of the Board of Commissioners to the public.

To learn more about the Kent County Land Bank, please see our Issues page on the Kent County Land Bank.