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Homeowners, activists demand action to help overtaxed Detroit residents

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Over-taxation of Detroit homeowners is a serious problem that demands an immediate response, including reimbursement or even legal action, to help residents, a panel tackling the issue said Wednesday.

"What we need to be about doing is making sure the Detroit City Council moves and our state legislators move, and doing everything we can to turn this system upside down," said Sam Riddle, a longtime city political analyst who hosts a show on 910AM Superstation.

Sam Riddle, John Mogk and Tina Patterson were part of a panel discussion on The Detroit News' investigation into Detroit homeowners being overtaxed by the city at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, Michigan on January 29, 2020.

The issues associated with residents facing over-taxation was the focus of the forum that the nonpartisan anti-poverty think tank the PuLSE Institute held Wednesday at the Wayne County Community College District downtown.

The event was in response to a Detroit News investigation that found City Hall overtaxed homeowners by at least $600 million between 2010 and 2016 after officials failed to accurately bring down property values in the years following the recession.

More than 150 people attended to seek solutions to something many told the panelists has hindered residents and changed their lives.

More:Detroit homeowners overtaxed $600 million

"Many people have lost their homes. How do you make those people whole again?" said Theresa Landrum, a southwest Detroit resident. "We need to have a battery of lawyers to sit down with the city and negotiate how to get our money back."

Mayor Mike Duggan has acknowledged past over-assessments but said he began cleaning up the department when he took office in 2014. The mayor said he can't correct past mistakes because current law doesn't allow it and the city can't afford it. 

Around 200 people filled the room during panel discussion on The Detroit News' investigation into Detroit homeowners being overtaxed by the city at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, Michigan on January 29, 2020.

A Duggan spokesman said Wednesday the city is looking at "ways to help individuals who were overtaxed during those years."

"The mayor has a whole team of people from his administration looking at possibilities that are both positive and legal," spokesman John Roach said.

Council President Brenda Jones has made a series of requests, including asking the city's top lawyer to draft a legal opinion on whether Detroit can set up a fund to reimburse overtaxed residents. 

The state ordered the city to perform a reappraisal of every residential property to correct inflated property assessments after the problem was highlighted in a 2013 Detroit News investigation. The city completed the process in 2017. 

More:Detroit overtaxing: How we reached our conclusions

The News analysis is the first to estimate how much Detroit homeowners were over-billed. State law mandates that assessments reflect the home's market value.

Taxpayers can appeal their assessments, but many are not aware they have the option.

Christine MacDonald, The News' investigative reporter who co-authored the piece that sparked the forum, said the paper's coverage was spurred in part "because we knew so many people were facing foreclosures. A lot of the foreclosures have been going down in the last couple years, but so many people ...are on payment plans and are struggling on these payment plans."

Detroit home owner Linda Walker listens in during a panel discussion on The Detroit News' investigation into Detroit homeowners being overtaxed by the city at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, Michigan on January 29, 2020.

When asked about what could remedy tax-related foreclosures, John Mogk, an expert on property, state and local government law and a law professor at Wayne State University, said: "The only way it can be corrected, in my view, so that it’s fair to everybody … is to eliminate the real property tax on homeowners."

Mogk added the "property tax represents a small percentage of the total revenue the city takes in."

As for other ways to compensate taxpayers, the professor suggested a lawsuit could be filed. He also said a ballot proposal requiring reimbursement is "worth taking a look at."

Calling the city's over-taxing irresponsible, Tina Patterson, president and research director at The PuLSE Institute, said Duggan's response following The News' coverage underscored the importance of keeping the issue in the public eye. The lawyer urged residents to keep pressuring city officials and lawmakers to spark change.

"We’re pushing somebody to action," she said. "It’s that kind of needed pressure that has to continue."

Angela Tanksley, a native Detroiter who believes she and her neighbors have long faced higher property taxes, said she welcomed the chance to hear from the panel. 

"They're at least trying to help to teach us how to go forward," she said.

Linda Walker, who also attended the forum, said she was shocked to learn about the over-taxing through MacDonald's piece. The retiree now plans to review tax documents from the last decade and work with others to determine if the city overtaxed the house she has lived in for 40 years.

"Had she not done the story, we would never have known about it," Walker said. "I'm just glad the story broke and the truth is out there."

Another forum is planned, officials said.

Wednesday's event was the second major community meeting to take place since The News published the investigation. The first was Jan. 23, when more than 500 residents showed up a meeting organized by the activist group Call-'Em Out at the Considine Center.