Scofflaws say they'll pay taxes: Error holds up Maxwell foreclosure

The city released its annual list of tax scofflaws this year, a tome of property owners that eschewed one or more of their quarterly payments last year. The list includes over 2,700 delinquent properties totaling over $8 million in owed taxes. The largest is Pier 4 in South Boston, which owes over $820,000, which it recently told the Boston Globe it would pay.

But a curious fact about the list, which yearly draws wide media attention, is that one can owe the city millions in back taxes and not be on it.

The real total that tax scofflaws owe the city, going back as far as the tax records do to the early 1900s, is near $30 million, according to the Mayor's Press Office. And though the tax collection rate hovers near 98 percent, Dorchester's borders hold a tax scofflaw that owes at least twice as much as Pier 4's owners.

The Maxwell Products Corporation, a company at 65 E. Cottage St. in Uphams Corner run by well-known civic activist Hal Cohen, owes well over $1.6 million to the city in taxes that began to accrue in 1977. The 2.75 acre property is of great interest to the neighborhood as the largest re-developable chunk of land in the area, which is adjacent to the Uphams Corner commuter rail stop on the Fairmount Line.

"Because the tax lien was taken out in [Fiscal Year] 2007, it does not show up in 2008," said spokesman Christopher Loh of the Mayor's Press Office about Maxwell's omission from the list. "It doesn't mean the city has moved on and forgotten about it."

Last year, the mayor's press secretary, Dot Joyce, expressed a sense of urgency about Maxwell's tax debt, and said the city would petition the land court to foreclose. To that end, a deal was hammered out with another debtor with a lien on the property - a group of former Maxwell employees represented by the federal Department of Labor whose pensions were raided to the tune of $650,000 when the company folded. By press time, however, neither party could confirm that deal still holds, but according to dockets at the Land Court, only one thing is holding up judgment: the need to serve notice to a potential mortgage holder on the property as named on the mortgage of file with the Suffolk Registry of Deeds: the Merchant Financial Investment Corporation of Natick, MA.

Until now, a clerical error has prevented that minor but crucial detail from taking place.

Somehow, an apostrophe 's' was added to the first word in that company's name back in 2004 when the case was filed. That mistake led the city of Boston on a wild goose chase after the Merchants Investment Corporation - a completely different company once based in downtown Boston and now dissolved. The error was only rectified this week, just as the Reporter began inquiring about it.

Court records show that certified letters were sent out in 2005 and 2006 and this October to the wrong company and its agents, one who was found to be deceased, and another who was thought to have retired to Florida but difficult or impossible to locate.

Boston's legal department called the Reporter on Tuesday in response to inquiries and said they were sending a new letter immediately to the Natick address of the correct company, the Merchant Financial Investment Corporation.

A call to the company confirmed that it is still in operation, and also that someone from the City of Boston had just called minutes earlier. The president of MFIC, Andrew Bendetson, was on vacation until Monday, according to a receptionist.

A judgment on the case - very likely a foreclosure - could potentially be at hand within the next few months. If the city were to successfully foreclose on the building, Cohen would have the right to appeal the decision and also a one-year right of redemption in which he could pay his debt and regain ownership. Thus it may still be years before the fate of the building is finally resolved and the city recoups the millions that would come in so handy in the now-official U.S. recession.

Amounts owed on the other Dorchester and Mattapan properties on this year's top 20 tax lien list are small by comparison, sometimes including only one missed payment, and many say they have already or soon will pay.

Timothy O'Callaghan, whose stalled condo development at 35 and 45 Coffey St. made number 14 this year with a tax debt of $28,787, missed only the payment for the last quarter of FY 2007.

"We're going to settle with the taxes, we're going to take care of that," he said. "I've paid them every year 'til now."

O'Callaghan came upon hard times earlier this year when the housing court ordered him to move or otherwise fix what O'Callaghan refers to as his surveyor's mistake - the placement of two houses in the wrong spot, too close to his neighbor's property line.

"That cost me a lot of money," he said.

A half finished condo building and a half demolished former nursing home sit on the land at 35 and 45 Coffey St., practically untouched since 2007. O'Callaghan said he expected work there to start again soon.

Bill Gordimer, an attorney for developers Edmond and Jonathan Redmon, said an unpaid tax bill for $27,590 for a new condo building at 572 Freeport St. - number 16 on the list - was already paid. The fact is confirmed by the development's first unit being sold on the Monday before Thanksgiving.

Mattapan's landmark Simco's on the Bridge was at 19 on the list, with a bill of $22,834. Owner Denise Fotopoulos said her parents own the building and are gearing up to pay the bill immediately.

"I know it's being taken care of," she said, adding that hot dogs are selling briskly. "It's been great, the economy hasn't hurt us so far."

Number 20 is Tony Vu's property at 160 Pleasant St. in Glover's Corner. Although the debt dates to the former owners, Vu is responsible for straightening it out. Vu plans a large development at the site and is actively seeking the support of Dorchester residents for the project, but he has not responded to multiple requests for comment from the Reporter. He owes $21,381 in back taxes.