County says school board member owes $566,000
By Carole Carlson email@example.com/302-0949 June 16, 2014 7:36PM
Gary school board member Marion Williams
Updated: July 18, 2014 6:17AM
GARY — A Gary school board member says he’s being unfairly targeted by Lake County for overdue property tax payments.
Marion R. Williams, who represents the 2nd District, disputes the county’s findings that he owes about $566,000 in property tax and penalties.
“The county has overassessed the properties,” Williams said Monday. “I purchased vacant houses for $4,000 and did $20,000 worth of improvements, and now they’re assessed at $143,000 in Marshalltown.”
Williams said he’s appealing the tax bills and finally received a hearing in March. He said Gary property owners must wait about four years to receive an appeal hearing from the county Property Tax Board of Appeals.
Lake County Commissioners have told their collection attorney, Jewell Harris Jr., to pursue a lawsuit against Williams to recoup the tax debt.
Harris confirmed Monday that he will file the lawsuit, likely in Lake Superior Court this week.
Williams contends that he has been singled out because of his opposition to the closing of six schools, as the Gary school district wrestles with a $23.9 million budget deficit, exacerbated by a 42 percent property tax collection rate.
“Isn’t it strange that Marion Williams has become the No. 1 target in Lake County?” Williams said. “If you become vocal at school board meetings, they say, ‘how can I malign him.’”
Williams blamed the district’s money woes on bad business decisions, including contracts with the Illinois Central Bus Co. and Sodexo MAGIC for food service.
County Treasurer John Petalas said Williams began acquiring the properties in the 1980s and until 2002 paid taxes on each one. Petalas said most of the properties are vacant lots and some are empty houses.
“My assumption is when he felt he couldn’t speculate any more, the properties starting going on tax sales and have been rotating between treasurer’s sales and commissioners’ sales,” Petalas said.
The treasurer’s office has one tax sale each year, and bidding on delinquent properties starts at the amount of the tax due. When a property doesn’t sell, it moves to the commissioners’ sale, where the back taxes are removed and bidding starts substantially lower.
“So obviously, nobody has bid on these properties because they are empty lots,” Petalas said of Williams’ property.
If a court judgment goes against Williams, he could see part of his school board salary garnished. The retired Gary educator and businessman earned $9,414 last year as a board member, according to state records.
Williams said he made improvements to a few houses but had difficulty renting them.
“I bought them and hoped I’d be able to build on those lots,” he said. “I always felt I should invest in Gary. ... It’s impossible to even rent them because there’s such a glut of properties in Gary. There are 137 empty houses in Marshalltown Terrace alone.
“Both my wife and I lost all our money because we attempted to invest in Gary,” he said.
On the property Williams singled out in the 2200 block of East 19th Place, tax records show it was assessed at $143,100 this year with a tax bill of $3,215.
On that property, Williams owes a delinquent tax of $29,250 and a delinquent penalty of $17,747, according to county records.
Correspondent Carrie Napoleon contributed to this report.