Blight Me!

7 08 2012
Taking care of business: A politically-connected rehabber scores a 10-year property tax break by expanding his law offices.   
Joseph V. Neill’s law office on Hampton Avenue in June 2011. In May, 16th-Ward Ald. Donna Baringer called for the property to be blighted, making it eligible for a 10-year tax abatement.

by Will Delaney

Attorney Joseph V. Neill, a member of the St. Louis police pension board appointed by Mayor Francis Slay, will receive up to a 10-year tax abatement for rehabbing his law office on Hampton Avenue, according to a bill filed in the Board of Aldermen.

“Blighted.”

On May 22, an ordinance introduced  by 16th-Ward Ald. Donna Baringer blighted Neill’s property, thereby creating a redevelopment area.  Under the law, blighting the property for redevelopment is in the  “interest of the public health, safety, morals and general welfare of the people of the city.”

In this case, blighting is also in the interest of the property owner,  JVN & Company, a limited liability corporation set up by Neill in 2009, which also includes four other attorneys that practice law at 5201 Hampton.

Baringer defends her legislation by saying that it is for the common good.

“The 16th Ward’s business district is 50 years old and in need of assistance for the deteriorating buildings,” Baringer told the Journal of Decomposition. “Joe Neill  has been active in our neighborhood for many years and is liked and respected. I took this piece of legislation before the St. Louis [Hills] Neighborhood Association before introducing it, and they had voted in favor of it.”

Records on file with the St. Louis Assessor’s Office  show JVN & Company  paid $7,440.33 in annual property taxes in November 2011. Under the terms of the proposed abatement, the commercial property will be frozen at its pre-improved assessed value  of  $84,100 for the next decade.  

“It’s not like we’re not paying anything,” says Neill. “We’ll be paying, a substantial amount of taxes, whatever the real estate taxes were before. We did a gut rehab on the place. We made substantial improvements to it. Basically, we took what was an eyesore and it’s now going to be a nice looking building. That’s the purpose of tax abatement – not to penalize somebody for taking something that’s an eyesore and making it into a better product.”

To accomplish their goal, Neill says he and the other lawyers pooled their money to buy the building through JVN & Company,  the limited liability corporation he formed. When finished, the plan is to lease the office space back to themselves from the corporation. Neill estimates that the exterior work could possibly be completed within two weeks.

The expanded law offices will replace a hodgepodge of storefronts in the 5200 block of Hampton. “There were four or five different storefronts,” says Neill. “There was stucco, there was tile, there was brick, there was wood.  When we’re done, it’s going to be a uniform front of brick.”

Neill says he considers his trusteeship of the police pension a civic duty. Moreover, he sees no conflict of interest between his serving at the behest of the mayor on the pension board since 2006, and being granted a tax abatement by City Hall. “I’ve never talked to the mayor about this abatement and I don’t think the mayor has any input on it,” says Neill. “It’s an aldermanic thing.”

16th-Ward Ald. Donna Baringer

Besides Neill, the mayor also appointed Tom Stoff to the board of trustees of the St. Louis Police Retirement  System.  Stoff has worked as an aide to incumbent city treasurer Larry Williams, who is bowing out after more than 30 years in office. William’s leave-taking comes in the wake of federal charges issued last year against  Fred W. Robinson, a city Treasury employee accused of having a no-show job.

The seven-member police pension board also includes the president of the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, the assistant city comptroller, and three representatives from the police department.

Control of the police pension fund has long been a contentious issue between Slay and the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the labor organization that represents the majority of city cops. Voters will likely decide in November on whether to take control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department away from the state and give it to the city. In the past, the police union has opposed the change. The push to get the measure on the ballot was spearheaded by an A Safer Missouri, an advocacy group bankrolled by right-wing billionaire Rex Sinquefield.

Neill is no stranger to public service or the controversy that sometimes accompanies it. The late Gov. Mel Carnahan appointed him to the St. Louis Election Board in 1994. He held the post until 2001, when he resigned in the midst of an investigation into voter fraud. Neill was not a subject of the investigation.

Prior to his election board duties, Neill served on the judicial panel that picks finalists applying for open seats on the St. Louis Circuit Court bench. Two of  Neill’s siblings, Margaret and Mark Neill, who are twins, are currently judges in the city circuit court. Joseph V. Neill did not sit on the judicial panel when either of them were nominated.

Before taking the bench, Mark Neill also practiced law at the Hampton Avenue address that his brother Joseph V. Neill still shares with four other attorneys.

Earlier this year, one of those attorneys — John Bouhasin — appealed a municipal court decision in Judge Mark Neill’s courtroom. Judge Neill ruled in favor of Bouhasin’s client,  overturning the lower court’s ruling that had revoked the liquor license of   Washington Avenue nightclub owner by Aprille Trupiano, daughter of the late mafia boss Matthew Trupiano. Mayor Slay’s administration favored the revocation.

Judge Mark Neill

In 2003, Bouhasin, a former assistant city counselor, was one of the subjects of a police internal affairs investigation, according to  the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The inquiry centered on allegations of a high-ranking police officer interceding to fix a DUI ticket of a  longtime drug informant.

Another attorney with his name painted on the door at 5201 Hampton — Thomas R. Carnes — was placed on one-year probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine in June 2011 by the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel of the Missouri Supreme Court for violations of  professional conduct. Carnes had previously been reprimanded in Missouri and Illinois for misconduct in 2006.

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