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Warren Jeffs' polygamous compound goes to auction

Published April 24, 2013 4:41 pm

Hildale • Surrounding homes, facing auction because of unpaid taxes, may be saved as money starts pouring in.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Days before Warren Jeffs' southern Utah compound is auctioned on courthouse steps, a sudden flurry of tax payments has surprised officials and may save homes in the surrounding community from being sold.

The taxes are not to save the compound built for — but never used by — imprisoned polygamous leader Jeffs. Washington County officials plan to hold an auction at 10 a.m. Thursday in St. George, but for reasons that have nothing to do with taxes.

The auction has been approved by a judge to help pay a judgment obtained by former Jeffs' spokesman Willie Jessop, who sued, saying leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ordered a late-night break-in and burglary of his business. Records show the Hildale compound sits on 6.1 acres and has a market value of $2.65 million.

In a separate development, about $700,000 has poured into Washington County coffers from members of the surrounding community. The payments are going toward a $1.1 million debt that accumulated after no one paid property taxes on 38 Hildale parcels for five years, according to county Treasurer David Whitehead.

Whitehead explained that when property taxes aren't paid for five years, the county can auction the land associated with those taxes. The money is due May 23, on which day any of the 38 Hildale properties with outstanding tax debt will be auctioned in St. George.

The 38 properties are owned by the United Effort Plan, a now state-run trust that owns millions of dollars of FLDS assets. Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan oversees the trust.

As of late last week, taxes on six of the 38 properties had been completely paid, Whitehead said, leaving 32 Hildale parcels at risk of going to the auction block. The money started coming in four or five weeks ago, Whitehead added, and has included an unusual number of cash payments.

"I would say there are more cash payments than usual at this time of year," Whitehead said.

The Washington County website lists all the properties at risk of being sold. As of late last week, taxes owed on UEP properties ranged from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars.

Wisan said last week that so far FLDS followers of Jeffs seem to be the people actually paying their taxes. Wisan does not have current membership roles for the church but said it appears that church leaders have told the faithful to pay down the debt.

As a result, Wisan is more concerned that ex-FLDS members or people who have abandoned Jeffs will be the ones who don't pay their taxes. Still, Wisan said that in light of the recent payments he was optimistic that the taxes will be paid and the trust — which in the past has struggled for funding — will not lose assets.

"It's encouraging that people are stepping up and starting to pay," he added.

Wisan also said the people living in trust property were responsible for their own property taxes even before the state stepped in over concerns about mismanagement in 2005.

William E. Jessop — a former leader in the FLDS church who now helms his own congregation — said that when he was in the church everyone contributed regularly to a fund for property taxes. The money was given to the bishop of the church, Jessop said, who then went and paid the county.

But as the church ran into legal trouble, ending with Jeffs' imprisonment, that process collapsed.

"People were still turning in money to pay the taxes but it tended to go other directions," Jessop explained, adding that at other times leaders actually ordered the faithful to not pay at all.

Now on the outside of the FLDS church, Jessop said he has advised his own congregation to pay.

"We're just trying to take each home and catch them up," Jessop said.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that many of the Hildale parcels have multiple houses on them, according to Washington County clerk and auditor Kim Hafen. Taxes must be paid on entire parcels, Hafen explained, regardless of how many houses they contain or how many families may be living there.

That means even people who have been paying some tax could still face losing their homes if the other occupants of their parcels haven't paid their share.

Hafen added that Washington County officials are anxious to subdivide the land in Hildale so each house sits on a distinct parcel that can be taxed separately. Attorneys for the Utah Attorney General's office and for Wisan said in a hearing last week that they also were anxious to see the land subdivided. That process has thus far been held up by legal proceedings in the complex UEP case.

To advise community members of the taxes and possible auction, Hafen sent out a letter in February notifying Wisan that "there's trouble brewing" and the properties could be sold off.

Wisan said he then sent out a newsletter to the community to alert the people of the situation. He also verbally told community members that they need to pay their taxes and talked to the city attorney about the looming debt.

The taxes can be paid up until 10 a.m. the morning of the auction. Hafen stressed that county officials priority is getting the tax money and they're willing to work with people who can't pay all at once.

"We're not anxious for anyone to lose their property," he said. "We'll take payments over as much as 18 months."

If the UEP properties do end up going to auction, Hafen said anyone can bid on them. The winning bidder will then take control of the property and can evict occupants or make other arrangements, such as signing a rental contract.

Wisan said UEP properties in neighboring Colorado City, Ariz., do not face the same risk of going to auction. Taxes are also overdue on those properties and are trickling in more slowly, Wisan said, but they won't be eligible for auctioning until next year. Different policies in Arizona's Mohave County also offer alternatives to selling the properties.

jdalrymple@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jimmycdii