As the real estate market began to recover from the 2008 crash, a company started by a Chinese investor named Bo Wu snapped up dozens of houses, duplexes and vacant lots throughout the Tampa Bay area.
The company still owns most of the properties. It also owes nearly $100,000 in taxes on them.
Wu's company is among the more than 32,000 owners in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties that failed to pay their 2018 property taxes by the April 1 deadline. Properties with delinquent taxes run the gamut from nursing homes, office buildings and private schools to a Hampton Inn in Tampa, a Wawa in Valrico and the Clearwater estate of a doctor known for his "minimally invasive surgery.''
But even if the owners didn't pay up on time, the two counties still collected a total of nearly $80-million thanks to an arcane investment: tax certificates.
When a property owner fails to pay, the county can issue a tax certificate to get its money. Investors bid for the certificates at sales held in May and pay the delinquent bills. The property owner has two years to pony up the taxes plus at least 5 percent interest, and the county forwards the payment to the investor.
This spring, Pinellas had 11,450 winning bidders and Hillsborough 16,833, more than in either county last year. The type of bidders has changed since the counties switched several years ago from in-person sales at the courthouse to online bidding.
"It used to be like a mom-and-pop thing,'' said Doug Belden, Hillsborough County's tax collector. "Now you have corporations buying a number of certificates. They have huge staffs of researchers looking into delinquencies — where is the property located, is it income producing, is it retail or residential?''
The reason for the corporate enthusiasm is simple: In some cases, the interest they receive on tax certificates can be considerably more than 5 percent AND the properties can be subject to foreclosure if the owners don't pay within the two-year period.
Property taxes — also called ad valorem taxes — are the major source of funding in Florida for schools, roads, police departments and other local government services. Although property taxes are levied everywhere in the United States, they are especially important in Florida because there is no state income tax.
Failing to pay property taxes on time can be embarrassing — and more — to those in the public eye. The already troubled tenure of Pinellas County schools superintendent Julie Janssen ended in 2011 a few months after the Tampa Bay Times revealed that she and her husband had been delinquent three times on taxes for a Tallahassee condo they owned.
In 2014, Pinellas County commissioners removed developer Roger Broderick from the county's housing finance board when they learned he had nearly $90,000 in delinquent taxes. From then on, the commissioners decreed, anyone serving on a county board had to be current on their taxes.
Among the property owners that didn't pay by this year's deadline were two of developer Grady Pridgen's limited liability companies — one that owed $162,787 for the Venetian Mobile Home Park and another that owed $51,512 for the long-closed Ed White Hospital, which Pridgen has said he plans to convert into an assisted living facility. Both are in St. Petersburg.
"Fell through the cracks. Being paid this week,'' Pridgen said of the taxes in a June 26 email to a reporter. (He paid both the next day.)
Developer Savni Bakrac's Bakrac Inc. is delinquent on three properties in St. Petersburg including the historic Ponce De Leon Hotel. Backrac, who did not return a call for comment, owes $65,625 on the hotel.
Starting in 2015, Wu, the Chinese investor, began amassing properties in Hillsborough and Pinellas through his Rich St Pete LLC. The company has paid the taxes on its seven Hillsborough properties, but owes a total of $94,616 for 36 houses and lots in Pinellas. Tax certificates have been issued on all of those.
Wu could not be reached for comment. Nor could Dr. James St. Louis, who is late on $156,260 in property taxes for his six-bedroom, six-bath mansion overlooking Clearwater Harbor in Belleair. St. Louis, founder of the now-defunct Laser Spine Institute, is under contract to sell the house, which has been on the market for several years and is currently listed at $7.9 million
Several multi-million dollar mansions in Hillsborough also have delinquent taxes, records show. The Richmond, Va.-based trust that owns a huge waterfront house in Tampa's Beach Park owes nearly $70,000, among the highest delinquent amounts in the county. The biggest delinquency, though, is on the Bridges, a Riverview assisted living facility — $169,557. (Its owner, an Indiana-based limited liability company, did not return a call for comment.)
If a property owner fails to pay in two years, the holder of the tax certificate can file a so-called "tax deed' application with the county tax collector. That triggers a foreclosure of the property. Unless the owner or lien holder brings the taxes current, the clerk of court proceeds with a tax deed auction open to anyone who wants to bid.
The properties are sold "as is,'' and bidders must do their own research as to condition. Although the sale typically wipes out mortgages, there may be outstanding judgments, current year taxes and other liens that survive the sale and become the responsibility of the winning bidder.
Another hitch: The winning bidder does not get title insurance or automatically acquire a marketable title — legal action is often needed to "quiet the title.''
"It's a risky enough business if you don't know what you're doing,'' Brian Davison, who acquired several Tampa Bay properties through tax deed sales, told the Times for a 2015 story. With more corporate bidders now in the tax deed business, he has since moved on to other types of real estate investments.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.