Sunshine advocate Kimo Crossman is sometimes counted as a thorn in the side of city government agencies due to his tendency to pepper them with public-records requests. But in the last couple days, he earned a gold star from the San Francisco Assessor-Recorder for pointing out that when Morgan Stanley walked away from five high-profile San Francisco properties, it neglected to pay a transfer tax. Thanks to an email from the ever-inquisitive Crossman, the assessor-recorder was able to collect roughly $3.5 million and feed it to the city’s ailing General Fund.
It started when Crossman read an article on Bloomberg.com about Morgan Stanley walking away from five San Francisco skyscrapers last December that it purchased in 2007: One Post, Foundry Square I, 201 California St., 60 Spear St. and 188 Embarcadero -- collectively valued at around $279 million.
He was annoyed. “Individuals can’t walk away from their obligations,” he said. But for the huge financial firm, “it doesn’t appear that they have any negative repercussions.”
The surrender of properties was described as a “transfer,” so he sent a note to the city asking, “is the SF city transfer tax incurred when Morgan Stanley walks away from SF office buildings which they are calling a 'Transfer'?”
Why indeed it is, came the reply.
“Some transactions trigger transfer tax, while others may not trigger transfer tax because of an existence of an exlusion in the SF Real Property Transfer Tax Ordinance,” explained Zoon Nguyen, deputy assessor-recorder, in an email. “I wanted to let you know that no exclusion was applied toward the Morgan Stanley transaction. As a result, the Assessor-Recorder's Office collected about $3.5M in transfer tax revenue for the City and County General Fund. I want to thank you, once again, for being engaged in these tax issues. I certainly appreciate knowing that there are people, like you, who are also monitoring these transactions. I would ask that you continue to send us these emails.”
Crossman told the Guardian, “I did it just to help the city and because I was mad at the banks walking away from their loans.”
However, this might just turn out to be the most lucrative cut-and-paste that Crossman has ever executed. There is a possibility of earning a “taxpayers reward” for bringing this to the city’s attention, he tells us. According to legislation passed by the Board of Supervisors in 2006, taxpayers who sniff out tax evasions such as this can, in certain cases, earn up to 10 percent of the collected tax revenue as a bonus -- in this case, the maximum would be a whopping $350,000. But it’s entirely at the discretion of the assessor-recorder, and Crossman isn’t holding his breath.
“I’m not the most favorite person in City Hall,” he laughed. We placed a call to the assessor-recorder for details, but haven’t heard back yet.