I-Team uncovers millions in unpaid property taxes - WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

I-Team uncovers millions in unpaid property taxes

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By Andre Moreau - bio | email

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The 9NEWS I-Team has spent the past several weeks scouring the tax rolls and has uncovered thousands of businesses that owe millions of dollars in unpaid property taxes. Who are the business owners and what happens when they won't pay up?

A thick stack of paper represents just one year of debt rolled up by businesses in East Baton Rouge Parish for reportedly not paying their property taxes in 2009. In that year alone, records show more than 6,400 East Baton Rouge Parish businesses failed to pay nearly $2 million in property taxes. The 9NEWS I-Team found if you combine the three tax years, from 2007 - 2009, the total number jumps to nearly $15,000 businesses have fallen behind to the tune of almost $5 million in unpaid taxes.

That nearly $5 million sitting on the books uncollected is the combination of simply failing to pay to business that have gone bankrupt to victims of a bad economy. That's an awful lot of money to collect with only a small staff of four full-time workers to collect it.

"What we try to do is work with the businesses," said Octave Anthaume.

Anthaume is the tax director for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office. He said he collected about $375 million in property taxes from businesses in 2009.

"We get with them and try to help them out and see that we get our money and they don't lose anything," he said.

Anthaume stated the $2 million uncollected in 2009 seems small compared to those who do pay and he claims a success rate of 99 percent. However, for those who do fall behind, collecting those taxes becomes a real test of patience. What were offices on Picardy Avenue for Tuscany Reserve, LLC went under two years ago. There is nothing there now, not even electricity. However, a card from the sheriff's office was found.

Tuscany Reserve built some apartments near Siegen Marketplace. Records show the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009 with unpaid property taxes of nearly $211,000. So, what happens if those taxes are never cleared, never collected?

"Some of the bigger ones closed and we settled for less than full value and we write off the rest," Anthaume answered.

The $211,000 remains uncollected.

Adam Knapp, CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce said even with the economy's downturn nationally, Baton Rouge can brag it wasn't so bad here and for the most part, businesses are thriving and those that are dying are all part of the natural ebb and flow.

"That more or less follows the character of the recession we've had, the real estate side," Knapp explained. "And on the retail side, it follows along with consumer levels."

The 9NEWS I-Team found not all of the money on the list is actually unpaid. Take the case of Ochsner Medical Center. Anthaume said in seeking a tax exempt status, Oschner has paid nearly $700,000 "in protest." The money goes into a parish trust. "Paid in Protest" means the money is tied up, pending court proceedings. And, depending on what happens there, the parish may actually never see a dime of it.

The former president of 'Shel-Boze,' which sold high-end lighting and home décor on Wooddale Boulevard, said the economy turned out the lights on his company. Family-owned for 56 years, when things went sour, property taxes went unpaid in 2009. They totaled more than $24,000, but Hugh Shelton said he's working to clear his name through the tax assessor's office.

"Sometimes I think they just see how long they can hold onto their money and see, generally, if we're going to get around to them," he said.

Zachary-based 'Parish Home Center' got hit by the housing slide and the owner said competition from mega stores like Home Depot. He admitted his business is liquidating. Records show he owes about $20,000 in property taxes. While records indicate the vast majority of businesses pay their taxes on time, the I-Team investigation found the many thousands that have not and the perhaps millions that might never be collected. Anthaume said tax laws give businesses plenty of chances to keep their property and he said many business owners will try to manipulate the system itself to avoid paying what they owe.

"We charge 1 percent interest a month, but if they understand what they need to do, they can get that changed to no interest for 9 months. They activate that little loophole and it messes us up. We have to start from square one again," Anthaume added.

The next I-Team investigation is Monday. Kiran Chawla continues her investigation at 10 p.m. into inventory missing from schools in the area.

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