MARANA CAUGHT IN SALES TAX BATTLE - The Explorer: Import

MARANA CAUGHT IN SALES TAX BATTLE

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Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2003 12:00 am | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

It seems that the only things certain in life are death, taxes and Marana battling in court to try and recover uncollected sales tax from businesses.

At just about any given time during the last decade, the town has found itself in pitched legal disputes trying to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from Marana businesses that have, either intentionally or through oversight, failed to pay the town's 2 percent "transaction privilege" or sales tax.

In the 1990s, Marana fought a 10-year battle with Li'l Abner's Restaurant for $109,000 in back taxes and almost went to the Arizona Supreme Court in 1993 to try and collect $160,381 from a construction company that built two pumping stations for the Central Arizona Project canal that runs through the town.

The latest case involves Spectrum Ina Road Auto Collision Center, a troubled paint and body business the town claims owes more than $160,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties.

According to Pima County Superior Court records, Marana has spent more than two years and thousands of taxpayer dollars in legal fees trying to collect from the business located at 4425 W. Ina Road.

Business owner Javier Avalos said neither he nor his company Tri-Coat Inc., which operates the Spectrum in Marana, is responsible for the tax liability the town is looking to collect.

"It's been a nightmare," Avalos said. "The taxes were there before I even took over the business. We've been trying to work things out with the town, which claims it's pro-business, but now here we are in court. We've tried everything we can to work this out."

Avalos says the tax debt is attributable, at least in part, to Daniel Paz, who operates two other Spectrum auto body businesses in Tucson and who Avalos claims operated the Spectrum in Marana before he took it over in 1999.

All of the Spectrum businesses have seen other troubles. A separate injunction against Paz sought by the Arizona Industrial Commission filed in Pima County Superior Court Jan. 6 is seeking to close his auto body and paint business at 2525 N. First Ave. for allegedly failing to pay state-mandated workman's compensation insurance, according to court records.

Both Avalos's Spectrum in Marana and Paz's Spectrum at 4610 E. Broadway Blvd. in Tucson have garnered "unsatisfactory" records with the Better Business Bureau, primarily for the lack of response to customer complaints, according to BBB records.

Neither Paz, who was recently added as a defendant in Marana's lawsuit against Avalos, nor his attorney, could be reached for comment.

Patrick Farrell, an attorney representing Avalos and Tri-Coat, said the Marana tax case has dragged out for so long because of frequent attempts to settle the debt.

"The parties have negotiated quite a bit about settling the case and during those negotiations, the litigation was slowed down," Farrell said. "There's a trial scheduled for later this month, but because Paz was added only about one month ago, it may be continued or we might be able to settle the case. But it's not going to go to trial this month."

Town officials were reluctant to comment directly on the case because of the ongoing litigation, but Marana Finance Director Roy Cuaron said the vast majority of Marana sales tax liability disputes are easily handled.

"Most of the assessment(s) that our auditors have levied have been paid. It's not often that the company has contested it. Almost every assessment that I've run into has been resolved without any legal action at all," Cuaron said.

The town, which does not levy a property tax, relies heavily on sales tax drawn from the approximately 450 active business licenses it maintains. The sales tax revenue accounted for about 63 percent of Marana's operating revenue last year, Cuaron said.

A relative handful of Marana businesses are randomly audited each year by a tax firm the town hires. Cuaron said he also scans the monthly reports he receives from the Arizona Department of Revenue looking for red flags.

Albert Holler, whose Phoenix-based firm Holler and Associates conducts audits and provides consulting services for Marana and seven other municipalities in the state, said most of the delinquencies are simple oversights.

"All the cities ask me that; 'are they really cheating or is it just a misunderstanding.' The great majority turn out to be a misunderstanding. But there are a few, maybe 10 percent who are intentionally under-reporting. My experience, about 30 years doing this, is that the vast majority are just mistakes and misunderstandings," Holler said.

Marana conducted 17 random audits in 1999; 13 in 2000, 16 in 2001 and 20 last year, Holler said.

"We just go and pick a few at random during the course of the year and say, "Hey, this one's up," or (we) look at a dollar bill and match that (serial) number close to a tax license number," Holler said. "It's all random so that everyone has an equal chance of being pulled for audit."

Willfully avoiding the tax is a criminal misdemeanor offense in most cities, Holler said, but most jurisdictions simply pursue collections through civil courts.

Cuaron said mistakes are not uncommon in the reports Marana businesses submit to the state Department of Revenue that tally income and sales tax collected.

"In some cases the state or taxpayer enters information wrong and it gets paid to another jurisdiction," Cuaron said. "For example Maricopa (County's) tax payment code is similar to Marana's, so someone puts down "mar" and ours is "ma" and that money ends up going to Maricopa or some other jurisdiction."

In the Li'l Abner's case, the owners claimed then Marana Town Manager Reynaldo Tern sent them a letter in 1987 claiming they would not have to pay sales tax if they agreed to be annexed by the town.

The owner, David Hoffman, claimed the letter was lost prior to the decade-long legal battle that ensued.

Marana spent more than $30,000 for legal costs suing Hoffman before it reached a settlement in 2000 for an undisclosed amount, according to court records.

As of Sept. 1, Marana had spent $15,093 in attorney and court fees trying to collect the tax debt from Spectrum, according to court filings.

The restaurant at 8501 N. Silverbell Road has since changed ownership.

In the CAP case, Colorado-based Centric/Jones Construction Co. argued that it didn't have to pay Marana more than $160,000 in sales tax because the town wasn't authorized to collect it. Lawyers for the company claimed that the town was only authorized to collect a set fee for the federal project, despite the fact the pumping station operated in the town limits.

An Arizona appeals court ruled in favor of the town in 1993, and a settlement for an undisclosed amount was reached, according to court records.

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