WASHINGTON -- The federal agency charged with cleaning up the savings and loan problem has failed to pay tens of millions of dollars in local taxes on real estate seized from failed thrifts, impeding the sale of those properties and hurting school districts and cities.
The regulators' failure to pay the property taxes on time is also adding to the skyrocketing cost of the S&L bailout, since many cities and counties are now assessing mounting penalties and interest on the properties, the Los Angeles Times has learned.
Officials in cities hit hard by the S&L crisis also charge that in some cases, federal regulators are actually abandoning their least valuable real estate, and turning it over for seizure by local governments rather than pay the back taxes.
"They are acting just like slumlords," said Ken Kile, deputy treasurer of El Paso County, Colo., where federal thrift regulators owe more than $3 million in back taxes on partially developed real estate that has apparently been abandoned.
Senior officials at the Resolution Trust Corp., the agency created to clean up the thrift mess, insist that they are paying all their property taxes on time. In June, the RTC stated publicly that its policy was to pay all of its property taxes.
But an internal RTC memo obtained by the Times declares that the RTC has decided not to pay its property taxes when the agency "does not have any realizable financial interest in the asset."
Analysts say that the memo suggests that the agency has quietly made a policy decision to walk away from properties if the RTC decides that it cannot sell its land holdings for enough money to pay its property taxes and make a sufficient profit as well.
The attempt to skirt property tax payments seems to be part of a broader strategy by the RTC to use virtually all of the funds that it receives from Congress on closing down insolvent S&Ls and paying off depositors as quickly as possible.
To focus on such shutdowns, the RTC is apparently declining to put much money toward such expenditures such as paying local real estate taxes or maintaining properties that it has inherited from those S&Ls.
But local officials stress that payment of real estate taxes is not optional for property holders, and that such levies must be paid even if the property declines in value, as has happened with much of the real estate that the RTC has inherited from failed S&Ls.
"They are making a business decision on whether or not to pay their taxes," said Richard Streiber, an attorney for the city of San Antonio, Texas, where the RTC owes millions of dollars in delinquent taxes.
Local officials also complain that on some more valuable properties, the RTC has hired expensive attorneys in an attempt to prevent local governments from collecting real estate taxes.
Texas, where the S&L crisis hit hard, has been especially vulnerable. Some tiny towns and school districts in rural sections of the state have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenues from unpaid property taxes.
In a new policy approved in June, the agency said that it plans to try to sell properties without having paid back tax penalties, even if tax liens are still in effect.
The RTC said in its policy that it would guarantee to buyers of its real estate that the federal government will agree to pay any back penalties that the courts impose on property once held by the RTC.
But critics charge that such a guarantee represents a hidden expansion of the cost of the S&L bailout, since such a promise to pay taxes in the future could obligate Congress for years after the properties are sold.