Staples' Assets

Assessor-elect Bill Staples' past includes a delinquent property-tax payment and a real estate deal helped by insider information

Bill Staples, the Democrat elected to value properties and set Pima County's tax roll for the next four years, used his position in county real estate to snap up a small westside lot the county disposed of in 1997.

Staples, now a senior county real estate appraiser, has also failed to pay property taxes this year on the 6,000-square-foot lot in El Rio Acres, north of Speedway Boulevard and a block west of the Santa Cruz River Park.

It is not the first time Staples, 44, has been delinquent in tax payments. The state filed a tax lien against Water Wizards, a mobile car wash business that Staples and partner John S. Utley owned in the 1980s, according to records. The lien was released after payment was made in 1988.

None of the numbers involved in the property purchase and tax cases are large. But Staples' actions in instigating a county auction for property he wanted, plus failure to pay taxes on the property, raise questions for a man who will be responsible for setting tax values on 360,000 pieces of real estate when he succeeds the retired Democratic Assessor Rick Lyons on Jan. 1.

Staples purchased the El Rio lot for $1,900, which was $1,700 less than the $3,619 value the assessor's office then placed on the property. The value, just for tax purposes, has since risen more than six fold, to $12,500. And even though property taxes on the lot are just $265.09 a year, Staples failed to make half of the payment by the end of April--which is actually the second half of last year's taxes--as well as the first payment for this year by Nov. 1.

The Water Wizards tax lien was $621.

Affable, polite and well-liked by colleagues and the assessor's staff, Staples easily won the three-way race for assessor on Nov. 2 with 52 percent of the vote. Republican Bill Heuisler, who advocated methods to reduce homeowners' tax burdens--Pima County has the highest property tax rates in the state--received 43 percent of the vote, and rookie Libertarian candidate Rich LaPoint captured 5 percent. It is unknown whether Staples' personal real estate and tax matters would have affected the election. The issues were never examined or reported by Tucson media.

Staples has been an appraiser in the real estate division of county Transportation and Flood Control since late 1989. He is paid $52,000 and will make $67,800 as assessor while overseeing a 152-person staff and an annual budget of $6.9 million.

Lured by the UA's low tuition cost, Staples arrived in Tucson in the late 1970s. He never earned a degree, but he graduated in politics via his close friendship with Glenn Miller, aide to U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, while Grijalva was on the Board of Supervisors from 1989-2002. Staples has long been part of Grijalva's political machine.

A love of Frisbee was one of the connections between Staples and Miller, and Frisbee apparently played a role in the El Rio property.

Asked what drew his attention to the lot, Staples said, "the Frisbee golf course. I could walk to that park. I have planned to build a house on the lot and live there. It's also easy access to downtown." The Santa Cruz River Park and disc-golf course are just a block away from the lot and familiar territory for Staples.

Staples insisted that that he simply responded to the public notice and participated in a public auction.

"It was all public record," he said. "I mean, it was an advertised public auction."

The property was auctioned on July 7, 1997--hardly prime time in Tucson to draw a substantial number of bidders because of summer vacations and proximity to the July 4 holiday. And Staples is correct in saying the property auction was advertised. It was--in the Daily Territorial, for four days in June 1997.

But documents provided by county real estate in response to the Weekly's public records request show that Staples started the process and received a heads-up about details well before notice was given to prospective bidders.

In fact, Staples notified his bosses on April 16, 1997, that he was interested in the El Rio lot and that the county should facilitate its sale.

"I have noticed the parcel of vacant land (tax # 115-17-1860) is owned by the state of Arizona," Staples wrote in a handwritten note. "As agent for the state, would the county consider selling the parcel? Please contact me at the address below if and when the county decides to sell the parcel."

In an interview, Staples said, "I don't remember it, but that's my signature. That's my handwriting."

Staples got special consideration when the real estate division prepared a notice to prospective bidders. Records show that the notice, setting the time and location for the July 7 auction, was dated May 29. A handwritten note near the top of the notice states: "hand delivered to B. Staples 4/30."

That is in stark contrast to the treatment prospective bidder Christine Barrios received. To her query, Tom Castillo, one of Grijalva's closest friends and political allies who served with Grijalva on the TUSD board, sent a cold note telling Barrios that she could call two county real estate division employees after June 30. Castillo, also a friend of Staples, retired Oct. 29.

The matter then moved to the Board of Supervisors, which voted unanimously on Aug. 18, 1997 to approve a quit claim deed conveying the property to Staples. The deed and resolution were signed by Grijalva, then the board chairman.

As to late taxes, Staples vowed to pay the total amount by Dec. 31.

"If you pay before Dec. 31, there is no interest," Staples said.

But that's not true for Staples and others who failed to pay the half of taxes due March 1. That portion of Staples' tax is delinquent, and the other half became delinquent Nov. 1, according to records in the Treasurer's Office. State law allows property owners who have paid their taxes in March or April but have not paid the portion that is due Nov. 1 to make the Nov. 1 payment with no interest penalty if the taxpayer pays that portion and the upcoming March portion by Dec. 31.

Even without Staples misunderstanding, he conceded that "an argument could be made" that public employees, political candidates and particularly assessors should pay their taxes on time.

Staples' real estate speculation--he also bought a downtown bungalow for $5,200 in 1996 that he sold for $34,000 to the Arizona Department of Transportation in 1998, and he has dabbled in the auctions of property tax liens--is sharply different from Lyons' personal practice.

Lyons, a career Assessor's Office appraiser and executive before he was elected 10 years ago in the recall of Democrat Alan Lang, invested in and owned no property. He rents a downtown apartment. Pending construction of his El Rio home, Staples rents a downtown apartment.

"That's a good way to do it," Staples said of Lyons' policy.

And how will he treat his property value?

"I'll let someone else do it and then pop it up by 20 percent or so," Staples said. "It's going to be higher than anyone else (with comparable property)."

On the matter of the state tax lien against Water Wizards, Staples said he was dunned long after he sold his share to partner, John S. Utley.

"I owned it for about nine months," Staples said. "I just know that when the state agent contacted me with the tax lien, it occurred after I sold to my partner. He gave the state my name. I paid it."

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