The No Name Restaurant’s sudden closure on the waterfront a few weeks ago exposed a big property tax liability, to the tune of nearly $700,000 owed to the city of Boston.
Yikes. That’s a lot of lobster rolls. A whopping bill like that one raises two big questions: Just how did the city let such a big fish like the No Name off the hook for so long? And how many other whoppers are out there, waiting to be caught?
We have an answer to the second question, at least. At my request, city officials ran the numbers for commercial properties that went into “tax title” — the process of initiating a lien for the purpose of collecting delinquent taxes — from 2013 through 2018, the most recent year that they had complete numbers for.
It turns out there is no other taxpayer that comes close to the No Name. As of the end of 2018, the seafood restaurant owed the city $353,000 just in back taxes, more than three times the next highest amount. All but three of the nearly 250 properties in tax title each owed less than $100,000 — and half of those owed less than $3,300. Add in the interest on the old bills, plus the more recent unpaid fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2020 bills, and the No Name debt still stands out: about $675,000.
Now the bad news. At this point, city officials can only try to recoup that money in bankruptcy court. No Name served its last plate on Sunday, Dec. 29. The next day, the restaurant, owned by the Contos family for decades, filed for Chapter 7 protection — i.e. liquidation. (The restaurant owners’ lawyer has not returned our calls.) City officials filed with federal bankruptcy court in Boston on Jan. 2, to collect the money. But the defunct restaurant’s total assets won’t come close to fully paying off the city’s tax bills, not to mention all the other unpaid bills listed in the bankruptcy papers. Creditors range from seafood distributors to the electric company, Eversource, to the landlord, the Massachusetts Port Authority.
About that last creditor, Massport. The fact the No Name was a tenant in a tax-exempt building in the port authority’s Fish Pier complex, and not a real estate owner, proved to be a big stumbling block in the city’s collection efforts.
Emme Handy, Boston’s chief financial officer, said the foreclosure process is usually an effective tax collection tool — when physical real estate is at stake. But, with no threat of a property taking, it becomes tougher to collect.
A number of commercial tenants in Massport properties are expected to pay real estate taxes to the city. But when they don’t? That gets tricky. The city filed a lien on the No Name’s leasehold interest in December 2014, but it never moved to foreclose on that interest in Land Court, a process that can be drawn out for years. The city could have also filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the No Name in Superior Court — the statute of limitations is six years — but it did not do that, either. It’s not exactly clear why.
Handy, who became the city’s CFO two years ago, said that even when the city wins in a tax dispute with a Massport tenant, the amount the city gets is usually much less than the outstanding tax bill.
Massport, for its part, maintains it’s not responsible for policing tax collections on behalf of the city. A spokeswoman said Massport leases specify that if taxes are assessed, the tenants are obligated to pay them. And she said the port authority is not typically notified by the city when a tenant has not paid its taxes. (She noted that Massport makes more than $18 million in annual payments in lieu of taxes to the city, for all its Boston properties.) The No Name, by the way, closed up shop owing Massport $93,000, equal to three months of rent, utility fees, and finance charges for its 7,200-square-foot location.
Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, didn’t sound particularly fazed about the No Name tax fiasco. Kocher, whose group acts as a fiscal watchdog for the city’s finances, said collecting on Massport properties can be a daunting task without the tool of real estate foreclosure.
In general, she gives the city high marks for its tax collection efforts. She noted that Boston had a 99 percent tax collection rate in the last fiscal year, when the city’s tax levy totaled more than $2.3 billion.
This rate of success is not unusual for Boston. In fact, it’s the norm. A city spokeswoman said the last time Boston did not have a 99 percent collection rate was in 2003 — when it was 98 percent.
It’s hard to complain about numbers like that. However, the No Name could end up being that rare fish — the big one that got away.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.