Gennie Suggs-Smith is "angry as hell," and she says that's what keeps her hanging on to the blight remediation group she founded, Census Tract 61 Neighborhood Council, years after losing its South Memphis office in a property dispute with Shelby County.
Now Suggs-Smith believes the county is dragging its feet on giving her a free property from the Shelby County Land Bank to replace the one she lost in a tax dispute.
"A good year has gone by that I've been trying to get another property [from the land bank]," Suggs-Smith said.
The trouble began in 2008. The Census Tract 61 group, which was founded in 1986, had been operating out of a house at 1249 Cannon since 2002. There they coordinated efforts to deal with blight in an area just east of Soulsville. They also ran a club for kids, fed meals to needy residents, and organized neighborhood get-togethers for the small area bordered by South Bellevue, South Parkway, Walker, and the BNSF railroad.
Suggs-Smith said she filed for nonprofit status with the IRS and property tax exemption status with the state Board of Equalization (BOE) in 2004. But that didn't stop tax bills from piling up. The outstanding tax bill on Census Tract 61's office rose to $11,600.
"I started getting letters about property taxes, but I thought, since we were a tax-exempt organization, sanctioned by the IRS and the state of Tennessee, that they were making a mistake," Suggs-Smith said. "I didn't follow up about the taxes though. Since I'd filed all the necessary [nonprofit] paperwork, I didn't think they were serious."
But turns out they were. In 2008, Suggs-Smith received a letter from the county letting her know they were serious about taking the property. Although she said she'd filed for tax-exempt status with the state, the county never received confirmation, and at the time, Suggs-Smith didn't have all the paperwork to prove her status.
"We had a flood in our building and lost a lot of files, but I eventually found a copy of the state stuff and showed it to the courts," Suggs-Smith said.
But it was too late to save her office on Cannon. It was sold in a tax sale in 2008.
Suggs-Smith eventually won an appeal to the state BOE in 2012, but although the board ruled Census Tract 61's tax exemption should have begun in 2004, it also determined such findings "would not likely affect the validity of a tax sale that has otherwise become final."
According to Greg Gallagher, a delinquent tax attorney with the Shelby County Trustee's office, the issue was that Suggs-Smith lacked proof of her tax-exempt status at the time of the tax sale.
"Unfortunately, she had already lost ownership of the property by the time the BOE came in and said, 'Well, we think the property was used as a nonprofit starting in 2004. But you no longer own the property, so we don't have jurisdiction.' It was a done deal. It had been sold," said Debra Gates, chief administrator for the Shelby County Trustee's office.
Suggs-Smith says she has an agreement with the Shelby County Land Bank to select a new property, but she said she has been turned down for two buildings and is awaiting a response on a third. Meanwhile, without an office, she says Census Tract 61 Neighborhood Council's membership has dwindled down from about 20 active members to only a handful of people.
"When we lost the building, people stopped coming. There are only a few of us left cutting vacant lots here and there and serving a few meals for the people left in our Meals on Wheels program," Suggs-Smith said.
As for her old property on Cannon, today, it sits vacant. It was purchased by an investment group in 2008, and Suggs-Smith said renters lived there for awhile. But it's remained empty for years. A "For Rent" sign hangs in the window.
"Every time I pass by that house I get angry," Suggs-Smith said. "It's just sitting there. It's going to become part of the blight scene."