A snag in the tax-lien reprieve for Camden youth center

Posted: March 20, 2012

After a decade of fighting Camden over outstanding tax liens it claims are unfair, Unity Community Center, the city's award-winning youth performing-arts group, finally celebrated a victory last week.

But the joy might not last long.

At last week's City Council meeting, President Frank Moran, following the lead of Councilman Brian Coleman, initiated "canceling interest and fees" for the tax liens on 1427 and 1429 Haddon Ave., a 7,000-square-foot property intended to be a multipurpose arts center for the nationally recognized group.

The previous $223,811 balance would be dropped to $5,000, Moran said.

The verbal resolution passed unanimously, with each council member praising the grassroots organization, which has taken Camden youth all over the world to perform. Known for its Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble and performers, the center is housed out of a tiny storefront on Mount Ephraim Avenue.

The decision "made me so happy," Robert Dickerson, founder of the center, said last week. "It regenerated my spirits."

But the written resolution subsequently drafted by city attorneys left the center to pay, within 60 days, a balance for back taxes and utility bills of $67,000.

"I don't know how that got passed," Dickerson said Monday after learning about the resolution's exact language. "We're definitely going to appeal."

Moran did not return calls for comment.

This is not the first time the center's dreams of expanding into the Haddon Avenue facility were crushed.

In 2009, City Council canceled the Haddon Avenue property's liens, but Judge Theodore Z. Davis, the city's state-appointed chief operating officer, vetoed the cancellation.

This time around, city officials hope the state, which retains fiscal oversight of Camden, realizes the benefit the center provides to the community by keeping youth off the street, and allows the cancellation of tax penalties.

"If the state does veto this, we should all jump on a bus and drive to Trenton," Moran told the crowd at last Tuesday evening's council meeting.

The resolution "in support of adjusting outstanding municipal liens" is under review by the state Department of Community Affairs, said spokeswoman Lisa Ryan.

Even if the state approves the fee cancellation, the center would still be stuck with a steep bill the nonprofit entity cannot afford, Dickerson said.

The corner property at Haddon and Atlantic that is under dispute was donated to Dickerson in 2000 by a Medford woman. But she had not paid taxes since 1992, and Dickerson became responsible for her $10,000 tax bill.

The taxes accumulated. Municipal tax liens were tacked on, and interest and late fees kept adding up. All while the center tried fighting the initial bill and had no access to the derelict building.

"It's been sitting there dormant," Dickerson said. "You can't get a permit until bogus tax liens are erased."

His idea is to convert the 7,000-square-foot property into a performing-arts center with a "mini-theater" and a few business tenants, including a hair salon.

The center serves about 350 children and, through its 28-year existence, has helped hundreds of youths to stay in school and to focus on the arts instead of gangs, Dickerson said.

To date, the full tax and lien bill for property is $223,811, according to city officials. But the city, citing a state statute that allows for a governing body to cancel any past-due taxes and other municipal charges it deems just for the best interests of the municipality, is willing to cancel $156,338 in interest and penalties.

The Camden County Municipal Utility Authority is seeking $6,042 in interest, which the city cannot waive.

However, utility authority deputy executive director Andy Kricun said that, if the center could prove there has been no water or sewer service to the Haddon Avenue building, the authority would adjust the charges.

"We're willing," Kricun said Monday, "to match what the city is doing."

Contact Claudia Vargas

at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on philly.com

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