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October 26, 2012

Clark County attorney explains sale amid protests

Residents fill commissioners’ meeting to air grievances, look for an explanation

JEFFERSONVILLE — The Clark County attorney defended the actions he took during a 2010 commissioners’ tax sale that resulted in a commissioners’ daughter holding the deeds of three county-owned properties — one without a vote by the commissioners — at the commissioners’ meeting Thursday.

County Attorney Greg Fifer presented those in attendance at the meeting — including about 20 who had been protesting outside before the meeting with signs calling for Commissioners Ed Meyer and Les Young to be voted out of office — with a 29-page memorandum explaining how his law firm, Applegate Fifer Pulliam, had overseen the disposal or redemption of tax certificates for 48 properties.

“You have relied on me exclusively to give you a recommendation on how to deal with this,” Fifer told the commissioners. “I think the county’s better off for having collected these delinquent taxes, and I’m not in any manner ashamed of the work that we’ve done. I do want to put the public concerns about this to rest, as long as those concerns are in good faith.”

Fifer’s presentation came in response to a request filed by Martina Webster, who is the campaign manager of Republican county council candidate Kelly Khuri.

Webster was one of several protesters outside before the meeting.

“People are tired of it,” Webster said. “People are tired of our commissioners not listening to us, acting as if they are elite rulers, and that they don’t owe their positions to us.”

According to the figures Fifer presented, tax certificates issued for 39 of the properties had been redeemed under his lawfirm’s oversight. The 39 properties comprised $1.182 million in past-due taxes. AFP collected $1.414 million, including the redemption amount on the certificates and subsequently assessed penalties.

“I think it’s an excellent result,” Fifer said.

All told, the county recovered $1.258 million, or 106 percent of the amount owed. AFP’s fee was $156,104, plus $11,250 in third-party title-search costs. Fifer said it’s the same 10-percent fee that would have been collected by SRI, the company contracted to sell 130 properties in the same sale.

Fifer said that the 48 properties for which AFP oversaw the sale of had large tax liabilities, and Fifer believed they could be liquidated or redeemed quickly.

Of the nine remaining properties, two sold for more than was owed. One was redeemed for $102,658 by the IRS despite the full amount owed being $72,523, and another with a liability of $60,526 was sold to the city of Jeffersonville for $210,000. Another property sold to an abutting landowner for $1,200, which left six for the commissioners to sell by inviting bids.

“Was it a perfect search? No,” Fifer said of AFP’s efforts to identify properties to sell or redeem, “because obviously these last six had become problematic.”

The News and Tribune revealed in an Oct. 12 report that two of the six remaining properties were bid upon by BMW LLC, a nonexistent company with a Sellersburg address, on March 15 of this year. The bids were accepted and the sales were approved unanimously by the commissioners at subsequent meetings, and the properties were deeded to Brittney Michelle Wardlaw, Meyer’s daughter, on July 4. Additionally, a third property, located at 916 Walnut St. in Jeffersonville, was sold to Wardlaw for $500 despite the commissioners not receiving a bid or voting on the sale of the property at a public meeting.

Fifer said he did not know who was behind BMW LLC at the time the bids were unsealed, but said the board acted appropriately when the deeds to the two properties were deeded to Wardlaw.

As for the Walnut Street property, Fifer said he regretted that the sale of the property had not been voted on by the commissioners at a public meeting.

“That’s my fault, not your fault as commissioners,” Fifer told the board.

Commissioner John Perkins asked Fifer if he had acted properly in regard to the commissioners’ sale after Fifer wrapped up his explanation.

“Was there anything I failed to do that I should have done as an elected county official?” Perkins asked.

Perkins reacted with an angry, “Excuse me?” when an audience member pointed out he had been appointed a caucus of the Democratic Party. Fifer responded in the negative to Perkins’ question. Meyer and Young did not pose a similar question to Fifer.

Webster asked why signs had not been used to advertise that the properties were for sale. Fifer responded that if a similar situation presents itself, he will consider doing so.

“I’m not saying we did everything perfect,” Fifer said.

After the meeting, Webster said she wasn’t satisfied with the explanation she had received.

“There’s a reason we put signs on properties,” Webster said. “It’s to get interest in the property. So for somebody that was really saying that they wanted to make the most off of the sale, it just doesn’t pass the smell test.”

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Erin Klein, a nationally-recognized education blogger and Tom Murray, State and District Digital Learning Policy and Advocacy Director for the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C., speak to a group of educators at Jeffersonville High School on Monday. They were just a couple of the big-name education personalities at the second annual Greater Clark Connected Conference.

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