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Former church turned boardinghouse faces tax sale today

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Scott A. Campbell says he is an ordained minister providing shelter for people. The village of West Carthage says his property is a nuisance beset with code violations. Jefferson County says he is delinquent on his property taxes to the tune of $11,000. And an ongoing saga involving the three parties will reach its denouement today when Mr. Campbell’s home, the former Long Falls Baptist Church turned rooming house, goes on the auction block.

Mr. Campbell, 37, is affiliated with the Universal Life Church, known in popular culture for its instant online ordinations that give ministers the authority to perform marriage ceremonies. The church’s website boasts more than 20 million ordained worldwide and features a video of late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien becoming a minister.

He arranged to purchase the church at 21 N. Main St. in 2008 for $37,000 when his then-wife was stationed at Fort Drum. After reading stories about military personnel sleeping in their cars because of a housing shortage, Mr. Campbell said he wanted to provide affordable housing.

“I’ll just buy a real big house and they can stay with us,” Mr. Campbell said he thought at the time.

Today, the building, which appears to be in decent structural shape, resembles neither a conventional church nor a boardinghouse. In place of pews, there are a sectional sofa, a recliner, a pair of large-screen televisions and a pull-down projection screen for watching movies. Behind a dais are a double shower and jacuzzi tub converted from the former church’s baptismal font.

Tenants wander in and out of the living room to make their way to the shower room. A Great Dane, Moose, scampers rambunctiously around the room, which is decorated with antiques, tapestries, posters and dollar bills from Mr. Campbell’s stint as a bar owner. The dollar bills bear the signatures of everyone from Frank Sinatra to Snoop Dogg.

Mr. Campbell knows he is not the typical minister and his methods are unorthodox but contends his approach indeed helps people.

“I know I have a rough exterior,” Mr. Campbell said. “But you can tell me you need $5 and I’ll give you my last $5 even if I have to starve. That’s who I am. Anybody who really knows me knows that.”

Mr. Campbell has eight people living with him. On Friday, three of them said without Mr. Campbell’s generosity they would be on the streets.

They pay what they can or help with chores, which partially explains why he is in his predicament.

Back taxes from 2008 amount to $11,302.71, and the county foreclosed on the property.

Mr. Campbell said he pays $1,200 to $1,500 a month to Billy Morris, who held the deed to the property. Mr. Morris was supposed to pay the taxes, Mr. Campbell said.

For whatever reason, it seems that never happened.

Two weeks ago, a foreclosure notice posted on the property was picked up by one of Mr. Campbell’s roommates.

Mr. Campbell said he has not been able to reach Mr. Morris, an elderly man in poor health who lives in North Carolina.

But according to the terms of his contract, Mr. Campbell was responsible for paying all taxes and fees associated with the property, said County Attorney David J. Paulsen.

Meanwhile, village officials, who have received numerous nuisance complaints about the property, asked the county to consider transferring it directly to them instead of including it in the auction.

Jefferson County officials agreed to withhold the property from the auction after Tuesday night’s Board of Legislators meeting because there were too many questions surrounding it, according to Legislator Scott A. Gray, the Finance and Rules Committee’s chairman.

But after giving the issue more thought, some legislators began to question the wisdom of that plan and spoke in favor of keeping the property in the auction to give the public a chance to bid on it.

A compromise was reached between the board’s factions by setting an undisclosed minimum bid on the property.

Only the auctioneer will know the amount, according to Legislator Michael W. Behling, a member of the ad-hoc committee dealing with the issue.

If no one successfully bids on the property, it will be turned over to the village.

The decision gives Mr. Campbell another chance to keep his church. He will be able to bid on the property, though he will have to meet the minimum bid. If he wins the auction with a bid lower than what he owes in back taxes, he will have to make up the difference before he can take possession.

Mr. Campbell said he intends to bid on the property today. If he wins, he will have 30 days to complete the transaction, giving him a window of time to raise the money. He said he has started selling everything he can, including a washer and dryer, his car and his daughter’s crib.

West Carthage Mayor Scott M. Burto said though there have been “numerous code violations and complaints” associated with the property, the village’s request to take it is a separate issue and is no different from other requests the county has received.

Taking possession of the property would give the village the “opportunity to clean it up and better the community,” Mr. Burto said.

The county has brokered such deals in the past, but usually when dealing with abandoned or condemned properties, Mr. Paulsen said.

To his knowledge, turning over an occupied property is unprecedented.

It’s a wrinkle legislators have considered.

“I’m not in favor of taking people’s homes,” Mr. Gray said. “But people have obligations to pay taxes.”

Mr. Campbell has been given ample opportunity to rectify the situation, Mr. Gray said.

Tuesday was the last day to participate in the county’s buyback program, which gives owners a chance to pay their outstanding taxes and reclaim their property.

Mr. Campbell said he tried to pay the taxes by the deadline and showed up with $2,000 but didn’t realize how high the fee had become.

Residents have complained about unkempt grass at the property, droppings from the Great Dane and excessive foot traffic into and out of the building.

But Mr. Campbell said he has never been popular in the village.

“It’s been like this since the day I bought the property,” he said.

And he can’t understand why. While most of his neighbors seem to want him gone, there is at least one who has benefited from his presence.

Robert F. Zehr, a former vice president at Community Bank, said his father, who is now deceased, used to live near Mr. Campbell.

One day, Mr. Campbell and one of his tenants noticed a water heater in Mr. Zehr’s father’s house needed to be replaced. Mr. Campbell and his tenant removed the old water heater and took Mr. Zehr’s father to a hardware store to select a new one.

They installed the new heater and left.

Afterward, Mr. Zehr insisted they accept payment for their services.

They wouldn’t take a nickel, he said.

“That’s typical of how I grew up in Carthage,” Mr. Zehr said. “You don’t see that much anymore.”

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