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Why people don't want to pay $100 to live in polygamous towns

Published August 18, 2014 7:21 am

Polygamy • Top reasons are religion, a sense of fairness and dislike of how trust money is spent.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Colorado City, Ariz. • Jeff Shields, an attorney for the United Effort Plan was explaining why residents here have to pay $100 a month to live in their homes.

Tom Jessop interrupted with a question.

"Why are we having to pay for something that's already ours in the first place?"

"What's yours in the first place?" Shields asked in reply.

"The bloody land!"

"The land is in the name of the trust."

"Well, aren't we the trust?"

The exchange, which happened during a community meeting here on Aug. 9, epitomized the conflict between the UEP, the trust that owns much of the land and homes here and in adjoining Hildale, Utah, and the occupants of those homes. The occupants are required to pay $100 a month per home, plus pay the property taxes. Nearly every American adult pays more to live in his or her home.

Yet about 80 percent of the people who are supposed to be paying the $100 a month are refusing to do so. The UEP was owed $4.18 million in back occupancy fees at the end of 2013, according to a trust report, and those debts have led to the first of what could be dozens of eviction notices served.

Interviews and documents show the resistance to the fees is rooted both in the religious tenets of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a sense of fairness and a classic American aversion to paying a fee they don't like.

Communal living • First, at least half the people who are supposed to pay the fees are still loyal to FLDS President Warren Jeffs, and he has forbidden his followers from paying the fees or otherwise cooperating with UEP management. Even some of those who no longer follow Jeffs have an objection to the $100 that's steeped in the FLDS' religion.

Since they set up a colony on what's now the Utah-Arizona line in the late 19th century, then broke with the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church because it decided to end the practice of polygamy, the FLDS followers have exercised a form of communal living. The FLDS' church-run trust owned the land and homes in what became Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., collectively known as Short Creek.

Homes and property near Bountiful, British Columbia, were also placed in the trust.

The trust was incorporated as the United Effort Plan in 1942. An executive board of men in the communities made financial decisions and divvied up homes and properties. Beneficiaries, men and women in the FLDS, were expected to contribute labor to help build and repair homes, outbuildings and playgrounds.

People were asked to provide money, too. Isaac Wyler, a lifelong Short Creek resident who works for the UEP, has told stories of how when it was time to pay property taxes, wheelbarrows would be placed in front of the church. By the end of the service, Wyler says, the UEP would literally have a wheelbarrow full of cash.

The communal system could instill pride among the beneficiaries. To this day, some homes in Hildale and Colorado City still have the letters "UEP" inscribed in large letters above doors or in roof apexes. The UEP court-appointed fiduciary, Bruce Wisan, says the UEP has $124 million in assets.

A major change happened in 1998 when, according to court documents, terms of the UEP were rewritten by the trust's board. The new rules gave the then-president of the FLDS, Rulon Jeffs, the power to appoint board members and gave the Jeffs family more authority over how to manage the trust. The amendments also essentially eliminated any concept of real estate ownership UEP beneficiaries previously enjoyed. The UEP now thoroughly owned all the property and the trustees decided how that property would be allocated.

With the Jeffs family in charge, boys, young men and older men with multiple wives and children were evicted from the community, and wives and homes were reassigned to other men and families.

When boys Warren Jeffs kicked out of Short Creek began filing lawsuits against the trust, neither Jeffs nor the UEP responded. There also was concern Jeffs was using UEP money for his own benefit, and that the mismanagement and silence could put all the beneficiaries at risk of losing their homes.

Under new management •In 2005, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff petitioned to seize the UEP. A judge agreed, and since then 3rd District Court Judge Denise Lindberg has presided over the legal case that is effectively court-supervised management of the UEP. Lindberg appointed Wisan, an accountant, as fiduciary and chief executive.

Wisan hired attorneys to begin defending the UEP from lawsuits. Settlements were reached with the boys and young men who first sued, but more and more lawsuits were filed.

Some people sued to recover homes they had been removed from years earlier. Wisan sued Hildale's town government when it would not go along with his plan to subdivide property there. Wisan also used lawyers to pursue water rights that may have belonged to the trust. The FLDS sued to end state involvement in the UEP. In one lawsuit that is still pending, Elissa Wall — whose testimony about her underage, arranged marriage once helped convict Warren Jeffs of rape as an accomplice — alleges the UEP had a role in what was done to her.

The lawsuits have resulted in attorneys, primarily Shields and his law firm, billing hundreds of dollars an hour for their services. Wisan, too, has been charging the UEP for his accounting and management services.

Court documents say all the fees paid or owed to Wisan, the attorneys, and other employees and professionals hired by the UEP, have exceeded $12 million since the state seized the trust. That has led to resentment and suspicions in Short Creek.

"They're just padding everything," said Hildale resident Jim Barlow.

Barlow wants an audit of the UEP and the fees paid to Wisan and the attorneys. Barlow and the tale of his home and how he tried to assist Wisan also is indicative of why some people don't want to pay the $100.

Lots of money •Barlow, 66, was born in Salt Lake City and raised in Short Creek, earned a bachelor's degree in business management at the University of Utah and served six years in the Utah National Guard. He has worked as a construction contractor for about 35 years, and built a home for himself, his two wives and their 19 children on UEP land in a small canyon on the north end of Hildale.

On Oct. 9, 2010, Barlow said he was called before the FLDS high council and told that the Lord wanted him to move. He was never told what transgression he had committed. Under Jeffs, Barlow's experience has been a typical one for FLDS men.

Barlow complied and spent the next two years working in North Dakota. He then returned to Hildale and, in early 2013, filed an eviction lawsuit to regain his home.

Barlow prevailed, but found the home had been stripped of furniture, appliances, cabinets, fixtures and even door knobs. It added up to about $160,000 in damage, Barlow said. The previous occupants also hadn't been paying the utility bills. Barlow says he paid about $1,600 to get the water turned on and about $7,000 to settle the electricity bill.

Despite all the work Barlow has done building and refurbishing the home, it still belongs to the UEP. He feels he has paid enough and dislikes the idea of paying $100 to someone else to live in his home.

Barlow, nevertheless, has been paying the fee since he returned to his home, but he says the UEP wants to charge him for something else: about $4,000 in occupancy fees that accumulated while he was away and not living there.

Barlow is among the 26 people who are eligible to receive the deeds to their homes if they pay their outstanding fees, plus $6,534 per-acre in what Wisan has described as transfer costs. Barlow isn't sure if he'll take the deal.

The fees would total about $25,000 for Barlow's home. He would have to borrow the money.

"What does the fee go to pay? It goes to pay attorneys and Bruce," Barlow said.

Bills to pay •Wisan has argued that much of the litigation costs have been created by Jeffs' followers, who have obstructed his efforts to manage the trust and divvy property. Lindberg has been trying to appoint a board that can assume governance of the UEP, but the judge has encountered two problems.

Foremost, Wisan has been unable to find anyone to provide affordable liability insurance should board members be sued for the decisions they make. But the other problem, as Lindberg sees it, is that the UEP has no steady stream of income to finance its management.

"She does not want to appoint a board of trustees that does not have an income," Wisan said at the community meeting Aug. 9.

Also, the $100 has not just gone to Wisan and attorneys, according to Wisan and documents he has filed with the court. The money also has paid professionals like surveyors and engineers who subdivided Hildale, and appraisers and auctioneers who helped sell property.

Many of them went years without being paid, or are still waiting on all or some of their money. Wisan, at the community meeting, said the UEP currently has about $3 million in debts, and most of that is owed to professionals.

On a few occasions, the UEP has paid county taxes on properties that were headed for tax auction. Occupants of each UEP home are supposed to be paying those taxes, but most have not, or have waited until a tax sale is imminent to do so.

Barlow said the dispute over the $100 is a symptom of the conflicts between how the UEP used to be managed and how Wisan is managing it.

"We didn't have any lawsuits," Barlow said of the old days. "We just were living in a communal way to hold the land in trust."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle