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County caught between large and small tax bills

Sean Ryan

Forgiving $29,900 in back taxes on a contaminated half-acre in West Allis is the only way Milwaukee County can avoid a $150,000 demolition bill for a building on the land.

The building at 1928 S. 62nd St. was a Plating Engineering Co. plant in which West Allis in 2006 discovered 30 chemical vats, many of them leaking. Plating Engineering abandoned the site in 2006, leaving the county with unpaid taxes and West Allis with a property that will cost an estimated $2 million in federal and state grants to clean.

“When it comes to brownfield cleanup, there’s never a good position for any public entity to be in,” said John Stibal, West Allis director of development. “What we can do is potentially help the entity be in a better position.”

West Allis last year secured a court order to demolish the former Plating Engineering building. But Milwaukee County must pick up the estimated $150,000 bill for the demolition if it does not agree to waive some of the property’s delinquent taxes, said Dan Diliberti, Milwaukee County treasurer.

County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo, who represents West Allis, said swallowing the $29,900 is the county’s best chance to get the property back on the tax rolls.

“Nobody’s going to want to touch this site,” he said, “or do anything there until it is clean.”

Unpaid property taxes are Milwaukee County’s responsibility. The county reimburses local governments for their share of the unpaid taxes and then tries to collect from the property owner, which is difficult for contaminated, abandoned properties, Diliberti said.

If the county does not waive $29,900 of the overall amount in back taxes, the demolition cost will be added to the tax bill, and the county will need to reimburse West Allis the extra $150,000.

If the county waives the taxes, West Allis can use federal and state grants to pay for the demolition and site cleanup, Stibal said. The county, he said, is over a barrel.

The county inherits tax problems from contaminated sites, Diliberti said, and sometimes the best option is to forgive the taxes if it means municipalities can redevelop the sites.

“It’s not always easy,” he said. “It’s not always clear.”

The Plating Engineering site is not the only contaminated site running up tax bills for Milwaukee County.

Diliberti said the county is trying to recover $600,000 it has paid to local governments for unpaid property taxes on 51 contaminated properties.

The Milwaukee County Board on Thursday will consider waiving the $29,900 in Plating Engineering taxes.

Stibal said the city this year will pave over the Plating Engineering property to cover contaminated soil, and then study land in and around the site for further contamination. The long-term goal, he said, is to develop a new store, such as a small grocery, on the property.

“We’re just waiting for the asphalt plants to open up,” he said Friday. “In fact, they might have already gone out there.”

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