Delinquent Community Leaders

Tax lists show many well-known Tucsonans aren't paying their fair share.

Steve Leal, the southside Democrat who is the City Council's senior member, has failed to pay taxes for several years on two properties he owns in the Dunbar-Spring neighborhood north of downtown.

In office since December 1989 and re-elected with no general election opposition to his fourth four-year term in 2001, Leal also is a facilities administrator at the Pima County Jail. He joined the council vote last June to increase--by nearly 50 percent--a portion of city property taxes used to fund daily operations.

Leal is not alone. Several prominent Pima County property owners, including some whose livelihoods depend on property taxes, are among the owners of 16,780 parcels with delinquent taxes.

Linda Schloss, a longtime Tucson Unified School District administrator, and her husband owed $2,889 on their $181,870 home in Dorado Country Club Estates. Close to half of that money would go to TUSD.

Leal allowed $3,800 to build up in delinquent property taxes on the two properties at North Main Avenue and West University Boulevard, across from Holy Family Catholic Church and the Dunbar-Spring Community Garden.

That included $2,274.12 on a commercial property, valued for tax purposes at $45,851, on the corner of North Main and West University, and $1,525.86 on the neighboring four-plex rental unit that is on the tax rolls for $78,000. The city, which derives most of its local money from its 2 cents per dollar sales tax, has a low property tax, just $112 a year for a property valued at $100,000. From a tax bill that combines Pima County, the Tucson Unified School District and state education and the Central Arizona Project, the city gets one in every 16 dollars for property taxes. The city was due about $230.

Leal is paid $38,831 a year in his job for Democratic Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. He also receives $24,000 a year in council pay.

When the issue of Leal's delinquent taxes threatened last week to erupt into a Tucson tempest--easy within increasingly petty city politics--Leal paid up with 16 percent interest.

"It was supposed to be paid," Leal said. "I was late. Nobody is out anything. I paid the interest."

Leal, who has dabbled in inner-city real estate investments for nearly 20 years, said he fell behind when his father took ill and then died, and when his family needed help.

Those who suggest he set a bad example, Leal said, "lack a conscience. This way I was able to help my father and my family and pay my taxes, too. Those who say the taxes come first would have people not help their families. And this began in 1996. That's when he got sick. It's not like it was the 24-hour flu."

Rafael Payan, the director of Pima County's Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation, was dunned for $3,674 in delinquent taxes on an Oro Valley home that Payan bought for $250,000 in April 2000. Payan makes $99,499 a year.

As state officials seek ways to plug up to $1 billion in deficits, several forces are calling for full share, fair share or even increased taxes. State Rep. Ted Downing, a freshman Democrat from midtown Tucson, is one of those champions of everyone paying a full share.

But assessor's records show that Downing has made frequent use of the system to appeal his home value and thus his tax bill for the $115,492 midtown home he shares with his wife. Downing, a UA anthropology professor, tried for three straight years to pay less in property taxes. In 1999, he claimed his home was worth $69,140, not the $84,046 the assessor pegged it, to save a little more than $200. He earned a compromise that saved him less than $100.

Downing said he responded to a solicitation from a tax consultant who offered to file an appeal for a $35 fee. The next year, Downing claimed his house was worth about $6,000 less than what the assessor said, and in another compromise, he ended up saving about $69. And in 2001, he tried but failed to save $219 when he claimed his home should have been valued $14,000 less.

Downing said he wants to "get people who weaseled their way off the tax rolls" with his bill in the Legislature.

He argued that his situation is different.

"Everybody has a right to appeal," he said.

Sen. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat whose family made a fortune from operating then selling her grandfather's El Campo tire shops, pays full-price on her taxes for her $121,000 Barrio Viejo home. She has advocated the Democratic view that Arizona's tax system should be restructured to eliminate exemptions and to attain a "fair and full share" structure.

But her father made use of Arizona's huge exemption for ranches, by knocking the value of a 77-acre parcel his Giffords Land & Cattle partnership bought for $200,000 in 1988 to just $77,000. The agriculture status drops annual property taxes that could be as high as $2,888 to less than $20.

And in a stretch of East 22nd Street commercial property, the senator's family has just appealed the new value--$642,650--by claiming the property is worth nearly $200,000 less. If upheld, they will cut their $30,642 tax bill by nearly $12,000.

The Giffords, who pay their property taxes promptly, also protested the value of the Soldier Trail homestead from which Gabrielle Giffords was first elected to the Legislature as a member of the House of Representative. Taxes on the property valued at $345,000 are $5,857. For three years beginning in 1997, the Giffords protested the value to achieve a tax bill chopped by about one third. The were successful in 1997 and reached a compromise with the assessor in the next two years.

"Everybody does it," Sen. Giffords said about the property value appeals and tax reductions. "They do their thing. My sister does her thing. And I do my thing."

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