Disabled military veteran Jim Boerner bought his buttercup-yellow mobile home in Mesa, Arizona two years ago, hoping to live affordably into his old age.
Boerner, 49, is unable to work because of spinal and brain injuries he suffered during a training exercise in 1991 at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, he said.
On his limited income, Boerner keeps a cat named Samantha, fixes guitars found at garage sales and brings flowers to widowed neighbors on Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day.
To save money, Boerner says he applied to a Maricopa County program that reduces property taxes for people with disabilities and limited incomes. He thought he had been accepted.
So when a stranger knocked on his door last month claiming to have bought his home at auction because of $236 in late taxes, Boerner said he was floored.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about? … This has got to be wrong,’ ” Boerner recalled. “Had I known I was in peril of losing my home, I would have paid it in full.”
Now Boerner is fighting to save his home, knowing he could be forced to pack his things any day.
Government officials have scrambled to find loopholes but say there may be nothing they can do. The new owner says he won’t negotiate and will begin eviction proceedings soon.
“It’s difficult. It’s just difficult,” Boerner said through tears on Monday. “I love my home. I love my neighbors. … This was my nest egg, you know? That’s why I paid cash for it. This is where I was going to retire. And now I don’t have that assurance anymore.”
What went wrong?
Boerner has had to navigate a labyrinth of bureaucracy to find out what went wrong.
The Maricopa County Assessor’s Office handles tax exemptions. The Maricopa County Treasurer’s Office collects tax payments and issues delinquency notices. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office serves delinquent taxpayers with auction notices and conducts the sales.
“I’ve been getting the brick wall everywhere I turn,” Boerner said.
Treasurer Royce Flora, who has been trying to help, said it’s understandable that a taxpayer may feel lost.
“If we can’t figure out how to get through the maze, how is he supposed to?” Flora said.
The treasurer believes it’s outrageous that Boerner is facing eviction.
If Boerner had lived in a single-family home, he might not be on the verge of being kicked out. Single-family homeowners have five years to pay back taxes before foreclosure.
But different rules apply to mobile homes, which are considered personal property, Flora said. They can be auctioned as soon as tax payments are late.
Arizona law is “not treating (a mobile home) like someone’s home,” Flora said. “A home is a home, and they should be treated the same.”
No record of his application
Boerner’s problems began last year, when a sheriff’s deputy arrived to tell him he was late on his property taxes and his mobile home could be sold at auction.
Boerner said he was confused.
He remembered filling out paperwork in 2017 soon after he bought the home to apply for a property-tax exemption and receiving a postcard confirming his acceptance.
After the deputy’s visit, Boerner said he sent another application to the Assessor’s Office and received another postcard. He didn’t keep either postcard, Boerner said.
Boerner called the Sheriff’s Office after last year’s visit and learned the home was not scheduled for auction, so he figured things were cleared up, he said.
The Assessor’s Office told The Arizona Republic it does send postcards to confirm property-tax exemptions. But after searching thoroughly, the office found no record of Boerner applying for an exemption in 2017 or 2018, although the office keeps all related documents including incomplete and rejected applications.
Another knock on the door
A few weeks ago, a sheriff’s deputy arrived at Boerner’s home again.
“Are we going to do this every year?” Boerner said he wondered.
The deputy told him he was “perilously close” to losing the home and advised he pay the tax soon, Boerner said.
Boerner called June 13 to make a payment. Two county employees told him the deadline was weeks away.
“There’s nothing serious you would need to be worried about as far as the home being in any danger or anything like that,” a county call-center employee told him, according to a recording made by the county.
When Boerner asked the amount he needed to pay, he was transferred to a Sheriff’s Office employee.
“Are they going to kick me out between now and June 30?” Boerner asked.
“I would imagine not. I would always advise paying as quickly as you can, but I don’t see anything in my comments saying they’re going to,” the employee replied.
That wasn’t true.
Boerner’s account with the Sheriff’s Office included notes that his home was scheduled for auction June 20, documents show.
A Sheriff’s Office spokesman did not respond to questions from The Republic about why Boerner was given incorrect information on the phone about the imminent auction.
The Sheriff’s Office employee then told Boerner he owed $641 in total. Of that, $405 was due from last year, the employee said.
When Boerner made the payment online, he said he only remembered $405. That’s what he paid.
It wasn’t enough. The home was sold at auction a week later for $4,400.
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SOURCE: USA Today, Rebekah L. Sanders