The Williams family, which has brought two major commercial developments to this city in the last three years and is trying to secure funding for a stainless-steel manufacturing plant, owes $1.7 million in city and school taxes, city records show.
Members of the family said Thursday that in one case the taxes were overlooked and will be paid but that the other taxes are in dispute because they involve industrial properties that are contaminated and have no value.
According to the city controller's office, the bulk of the taxes, $1,344,485 dating back to 1990, is owed on the vacant Royal Avenue property that once was occupied by Frontier Chemical. Frontier Chemical later became a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup site, according to Jon M. and James F. Williams. The amount also includes delinquent water and sewer bills and penalties and interest.
A total of $201,195 in taxes, penalties and interest -- in most cases dating back to 1997 -- is owed on four properties in the Buffalo Avenue industrial zone. The Williams family has been acquiring property there in the hope of building a $250 million stainless-steel manufacturing plant, which would bring the first new manufacturing jobs here in decades.
The sixth property is the Williams Building at 256 Third St., an office building on which $163,133 is owed dating back to 1997.
None of the figures includes county taxes, according to Keith Martineau, city billing and collections supervisor.
"I didn't realize they were due," James F. Williams said of the taxes on the Third Street office building. "We'll just pay them. It was just an oversight. We've had that building since 1983. It was an urban development loan to convert that for Warren Hoffman's use. That loan was paid off over 10 years ago."
Warren Hoffman, an insurance company, is a tenant in the Third Street building.
Williams also said that payments in lieu of taxes on Falls Street Station are up to date. That building is owned by Falls Street Leasing, a Williams enterprise. It was redeveloped and expanded for the TeleTech Holdings call center, which has grown to 800 or more jobs since it was opened late in 1997.
The Williams family is also a principal in the new AquaFalls underground aquarium project that is under construction at the former Occidental Chemical Corp. building, which the family has purchased.
Jon Williams called the taxes on the Frontier Chemical property "absolutely ridiculous." Similarly, he said the property at 75 Acheson Drive, off Buffalo Avenue, was bought from the city for $1 for the potential stainless-steel plant. He said the price was so low because there is asbestos contamination there.
"The taxes were supposed to be dropped because we bought it with contamination on the site. I know for a fact that the stuff (taxes) on Acheson and Frontier is without merit because neither one of the properties have any value, and the taxes are based on the value of the property," Jon Williams said.
James William agreed. He said the Royal Avenue property is vacant. The cleanup was to take place in three phases. While the first two phases were complete, the third is not, he said. He said the Williams family has owned the property for 20 years. It was leased by a tenant that had a permit from the state to operate a hazardous-waste transfer station.
"I don't imagine the taxes will ever get paid. If the city wants it, they can take it but the property doesn't have any productive use," he said.
Acting Corporation Counsel Timothy G. Bax said the city hasn't foreclosed because "we would assume liability for the environmental contamination and cleanup under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Responsibility and Liability Act" if the city took title to the property.
Still, Bax said, "The taxes cannot be canceled. Probably the only one that could cancel taxes is a court. The City Council cannot cancel taxes. They can only cancel the penalties and interest. The taxes accrue. The lien is only against the property. There's no personal liability for the owner. Property taxes never are a personal liability. In the event that the property (is) sold, since there's a lien on the property, a prudent purchaser would want to make sure title was clear which would include payment of taxes."
As to the Buffalo Avenue area properties owned by the Acheson Group, James F. Williams said: "They were purchased at tax sales for a nominal amount of money for the (stainless-steel) project. When the project proceeds, the taxes will get paid. If the project doesn't proceed, we'll find some other use for the property, and I'm sure we'll pay the taxes eventually. We have paid taxes on those properties."
The Williams family has been hailed by Mayor James C. Galie for its part in bringing TeleTech, AquaFalls and possibly the steel plant here.