Posted: Sep 27, 2007 4:01 pm
A more immediate concern may be whether some candidates now delinquent on property taxes are legally qualified to run in the first place.
The City Charter states that "no person shall be eligible'' for mayor or a seat on the council "who is in arrears for taxes.''
The obscure provision stemming from an 1879 law poses potential trouble for candidates like Hedgepeth, a homebuilder who was behind on taxes on several properties he's developing.
"I try to do the right thing,'' said Hedgepeth, 30, owner of Hedgepeth Construction. He said he typically pays off late taxes when he closes a sale on a home he's built.
"We've been building for a while, and that's how we've always done it,'' he said of a business decision echoed by his campaign manager, City Councilman Jack Sammons.
"It's industry practice for a builder to pay the taxes on a house at closing,'' Sammons said.
However, records reviewed earlier this week show Hedgepeth's tax debt also included $8,400 in delinquent city taxes, penalties and interest owed on his personal home in East Memphis -- something he disputed at first when speaking with a reporter.
"I keep that paid up,'' he said.
Hedgepeth did pay most of the 2006 county taxes owed on his home on Aug. 7 -- five months late, said Paul Mattila, a top aide in the County Trustee's Office.
After speaking with a reporter Tuesday afternoon, Hedgepeth went down to City Hall and paid the delinquent city taxes on his home -- $8,402 in all, records show.
On Wednesday, Hedgepeth paid off his remaining city and county delinquency -- about $24,000. "He didn't want there to be any doubt about the issue so he went ahead and paid it,'' Sammons said.
Still, it's unclear exactly what legal ramifications such delinquencies pose under the City Charter. Court decisions challenging similar city laws in other parts of the country have been mixed, and authorities contacted by the newspaper said they were unsure if the Memphis law had ever been enforced or ruled on by the courts. Sammons said he and colleagues seem to recall that the charter provision was overturned about 20 years ago.
Politically, however, tax delinquency is a no-brainer, said Sean O'Brien, executive director of the University of Virginia's Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership.
"Do you really want someone who doesn't pay their taxes to collect your taxes?'' said O'Brien, summing up an argument often made by candidates whose opponents owe delinquent taxes.
Shelby County Trustee Bob Patterson, the elected official charged with collecting property taxes here, has heard arguments like those by Sammons and Hedgepeth before and he rejects them.
"Running for an elected office, you have an onus to pay your taxes,'' Patterson said. "You have to set the example.''
No candidate has a bigger delinquent property tax bill than city clerk candidate Williams, whose First Supreme Trust Co. owes $124,000 in delinquent city and county property taxes on a commercial building in Whitehaven. Arrears on the building date back to 1997. Properties generally are put in a delinquent tax sale after three years, yet Williams has filed a number of legal challenges to block that, Patterson said.
Still, Hedgepeth and Williams have plenty of company. City and county records reviewed by the newspaper this week include these candidates and delinquent taxes, interest and penalties:
Council District 8 Position 1 candidate Ian Randolph, $6,846, on his Midtown home and a second vacant property.
District 6 candidate Clifford Lewis, $5,966, on a home in Southwest Memphis.
District 1 candidate Jesse Jeff, $7,748, on his Frayser home.