John Jeffery Parsons lived alone with a cat in a one-bedroom home on a tree-lined street in Kalispell. He had a lot of friends. But they say he was never one to burden other people with his feelings.
"John was very quiet concerning his private affairs," says Jim Swab, who as president of the Glacier National Park Associates oversaw Parsons's volunteer work with the organization. "He didn't talk about his financial world. He didn't talk about his job."
In the early 1990s, Parsons worked as a land-use planner for Flathead County. He later worked as a consultant for local developers. And he spent hundreds of hours every summer volunteering for GNPA. He also helped to organize functions for area nonprofits, including The Flathead Youth Home. "John would do anything for you," Swab says.
Parsons's friends are still trying to understand why he committed suicide. In the early morning hours of March 9, the 56-year-old set off an explosion thatfueled by chemicals, propane cylinders and live ammunitiondestroyed his home, sent debris into neighboring yards and ended his life.
Many questions remain about what prompted Parsons to kill himself. However, it is clear that he was losing his house after failing to pay property taxes on it since 2007.
A Great Falls-based company, the Montana Land Project, last year assumed the deed to Parson's 9th Avenue West home. The Montana Land Project used what's called the "tax-deed process," a legal mechanism that allows a third party to pay an outstanding tax bill and take ownership of a property.
In 2010, the Montana Land Project paid Flathead County $3,446.53 in outstanding property tax and interest. In exchange, the company acquired a lien on Parsons's land. In Oct. 2011, the company paid another $1,380.30 to acquire the deed to his home. The Montana Department of Revenue values the house at $108,200.
Parsons wasn't alone in his tax troubles. Tax liens are becoming an increasingly popular investment in the Flathead, says Flathead County Treasurer Adele Krantz. And there's no shortage of liens to acquire.
In 2011, third-party investors like the Montana Land Project paid the delinquent tax bills attached to 377 Flathead County properties; that marked a five-year high, second only to 2007, when investors purchased 364 liens, including the one on Parsons's home.
Once a property owner becomes delinquent, a series of interest charges and penalties are assessed. "It mounts up quick," says Krantz. Homeowners have a 36-month redemption period to settle the tab before the deed is sold. Krantz says that's usually what happens.
In fact, she says during the past five years in Flathead County, only 22 properties actually changed ownership through the tax deed process. Of those, the Montana Land Project, the same company that now holds title to Parsons' former house, acquired 10.
It's not unusual for investors to sell properties back to the previous owners after acquiring a deed. But the Montana Land Project is tough to track, Krantz says. The company "has been hard to get ahold of to even see if they'll give it back to you."
The Flathead County Treasurer's Office has no phone number on record for the Montana Land Project, nor has the company provided the names of its managers. The only contact information on record with the county treasurer is a Great Falls post office box. State law does not require that companies doing business in Montana provide physical addresses, manager names or phone numbers.
"We asked them for their phone number," Krantz says. "But they wouldn't give it to us." According to the Montana Secretary of State's Office, Tiffany Bergan and Brion Lindseth, both of Great Falls, manage the Montana Land Project. Neither Bergan nor Lindseth returned phone calls from the Independent seeking comment.
Parsons's suicide marks the second example this past year of western Montana homeowners losing property through the tax deed process. In Missoula, Betty C. Museus was evicted in 2011 after a Virginia-based company called the Mooring Tax Asset Group assumed ownership of her Park Street home.
Museus was an elderly recluse who didn't respond to mail. She stopped paying taxes on her property in 2004. In 2006, MTAG paid the outstanding $5,822.09 tax bill. The property is worth $264,700.
Missoula City Councilman Jon Wilkins lived close to Museus. He was appalled to learn that she had been evicted. As the Independent reported in October, Wilkins's outrage prompted the councilman to call upon the Montana Legislature to craft greater legal protections.
Wilkins says he was troubled to hear that the tax deed process may also have contributed to Parsons's death. "I just know that it was a tragedy, and it probably could have been prevented."
Wilkins is working on a couple of ideas for legal reforms. For starters, he says investors should be required to provide counties with their names and phone numbers when purchasing liens. "They should be really transparent."
He also wants people slated to lose their homes to receive an in-person visit to ensure they understand the tax deed process. "That's our main goal," Wilkins says, "to get an agency to do a welfare check."
He may have a tough time persuading Kalispell State Sen. Bruce Tutvedt. Parsons's death was "heart wrenching," Tutvedt says. But the Republican lawmaker says he would likely resist further legislation of the tax deed process. "At the end of the day, the taxpayer has to be held accountable."
If Wilkins has his way, this debate will continue during Montana's 2013 Legislative Session. As for Parsons, among his last acts was to donate $1,400 to Glacier National Park Associates. Swab, of GNPA, says the nonprofit received the check hours after Parsons's death.
Parsons's friends will hold a memorial service for him on April 28 at 2 p.m. at Lone Pine State Park.