9 Investigates unpaid back taxes in Orange County for nonprofits, churches

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. —

9 Investigates has discovered hundreds of churches and nonprofits in Orange County are behind on special taxes they're required to pay.

Those properties are now at risk of being sold to the highest bidder or handed over to the county.

Eyewitness News anchor Vanessa Welch spoke with tax collector Scott Randolph, who is trying to clean up the tax rolls and help the groups save their properties.

Randolph provided a list of the delinquent properties to Eyewitness News. One of the properties is the Mount Olive AME Church in Orlando, which has not paid taxes in two years. In fact, the church owes nearly $6,000.

"The county could take your property. What do you think about that?" Welch asked Mount Olive's pastor, Mark Crutcher.

"I say, 'God forbid,'" Crutcher answered.

Yet the property may not stay in the church's hands.

Randolph, the newly elected Orange County tax collector, discovered his predecessor, Earl K. Wood, stopped enforcing back taxes in 2003.

As a result, Orange and some municipalities have lost out on more than $1 million in revenue.

When researching the problem, Randolph also found hundreds of the offenders happen to be churches and nonprofits.

"They could lose their property," Randolph said. "That's the worst-case scenario."

While churches and nonprofits are exempt from property taxes, they're required to pay special assessments to cover things like stormwater drains and street lights.

Crutcher said he thinks all fees should be waived so churches like his can help more needy people.

"That could be devastating. It could be a budget breaker," Crutcher said. "I know they would love some relief, just like we would as well."

Welch found that one of the most delinquent nonprofits is Mending Heart Charities. The group owes more than $30,000 on properties it provides for low-income families.

The director there said paying the taxes would put the charity out of business and cause more homelessness.

Randolph sympathizes with the property owners.

"We don't want to take property from someone," he said. "We are just trying to follow Florida law."

If back taxes are not paid in two years and no one bids on the certificate at auction, the county, by law, has to apply for a tax deed. That means the county would end up owning the property.

Randolph's records show the county should have applied for 647 certificates dating back to 2006 but has not made those requests.

His work to clean up the tax rolls comes at the same time his elected position has come under fire.

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs formed a task force to consider making the tax collector's position an appointed job. The elected position pays more than $150,000 a year.

Randolph, meanwhile, maintains that the delinquent tax issue justifies his position.

"This is one of those scenarios that quite frankly, if it wasn't an elected position, would be swept under the rug," Randolph said. "I hope it makes the county and the cities assess how they are doing these special assessments on these properties and come to some kind of policy agreement about whether to continue to put churches and non-profits at risk of losing their properties based on these taxes."

Jacobs refused to comment until the task force makes a final recommendation on the tax collector's position.

Randolph said many churches and charities are behind due to confusion with the system. He said many do not realize they owe these taxes because they don't have to pay property taxes. He is mailing warnings to nearly 1,800 delinquent property owners to explain the situation.

State from Mayor Jacobs' Office:

Vanessa,

Sincere thanks for considering Mayor Jacobs for participation in your tax collector task force story.

Since the goal of the task force is to allow the members to conduct an independent evaluation of the tax collector office operations and mission, Mayor Jacobs does not want to comment or weigh in regarding the deliberations of the task force until they deliver their findings to the Board of County Commissioners (and community).

May we aim for a conversation between you and Mayor Jacobs to occur when the task force has concluded its efforts (or thereabouts)?

Again, with sincere thanks. 

Very best,

Lisa Nason

Office of Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs