‘We’re here to right a wrong:’ Eatonville agency to return vulnerable man’s property

CRA took possession of the property in 2020 in a controversial transaction

EATONVILLE, Fla. – Members of the Eatonville Community Redevelopment Agency board of directors voted Tuesday to return a piece of property to a vulnerable 66-year-old man who many believe may have impaired cognitive abilities.

A previous Eatonville CRA board took possession of Tommy Dixon’s home and land in 2020 as part of a complicated real estate transaction.

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Some current board members consider the deal unethical due to Dixon’s potential inability to understand the agreement.

“We are here tonight to right a wrong,” said Eatonville Mayor Eddie Cole, who serves as a member of the current CRA board. “We have a gentleman’s home that is not ours and should not be ours.”

The CRA board plans to ask the Florida Commission on Ethics to investigate the real estate deal.

“I don’t think this is a criminal matter, but this is an ethics matter,” Eatonville town attorney Dean Mosley advised the board. “Someone should have known not to spend public dollars on a personal, private financial crisis.”

The board also voted to suspend Eatonville CRA executive director Michael Johnson without pay while it considers whether to terminate the agency employee for multiple alleged issues, including his involvement in the Dixon property matter.

Johnson could not immediately be reached for comment. He had previously declined to comment about the Dixon real estate transaction.

For nearly all his life, Dixon has lived in a home on Kennedy Boulevard that was owned by his late father’s estate.

Real estate taxes had not been paid on the property since at least 2017, records show.

In the summer of 2020, the Orange County Comptroller’s Office sent a notice stating Dixon’s property would be sold to the highest bidder at auction on November 12, 2020 in what is known as a tax deed sale if the delinquent taxes were not paid.

According to Cole, Dixon contacted the Eatonville Police Department about the notice. A police department employee reportedly referred Dixon to the Eatonville CRA for possible guidance.

Community redevelopment agencies generally do not assist residents with paying delinquent property taxes.

Instead, Eatonville CRA’s mission is to “aggressively pursue redevelopment and revitalization activities” within the town, in part by acquiring blighted properties for future development.

During an Eatonville CRA board meeting in early November 2020, the agency’s attorney outlined a unique proposal that would enable the CRA to acquire Dixon’s property for a fraction of its market value while also helping Dixon save his home.

Under the proposal, records show the CRA would use money from its “demolition and acquisition” budget to pay off Dixon’s delinquent property taxes and fees, which totaled $7,571.

In exchange, Dixon would transfer ownership of his family’s property to the CRA.

That property had a market value of $93,773 in 2019, according to county records.

During the 2020 CRA meeting, board members questioned Dixon’s ability to understand the real estate transaction.

“He has some challenges,” said board member Marilyn Sconions. “And with those challenges that he has, we need to make sure he understands what we’re doing.”

The agency’s executive director also acknowledged Dixon’s potential comprehension problems.

“I did talk to him. I don’t think he understood the taxes and insurance thing,” said Johnson.

“We know – and I know – you have to explain it to him,” Sconions said. “And I don’t know whether he’s going to still understand it once you explain it to him.”

“Probably not,” replied Johnson.

Board member Linder Greathouse, who has a background in caring for vulnerable adults, suggested the board should consider a different proposal due to Dixon’s “mental capacity.”

“This is not right to take this property for $7,000 if it’s worth $100,000,” said Greathouse. “I work with mental illness people every day. This is what I do. And I just feel he’s being taken advantage of.”

Despite the members’ concerns, the CRA board voted 3-0 in favor of authorizing the agency to acquire Dixon’s property. Greathouse and two other newly-appointed board members were reportedly barred from voting.

This is the best way to protect [Dixon’s] interest and our interest,” Johnson said after the vote. “I appreciate the board being compassionate, but also understanding we have to protect ourselves, also. And I think this is the best common ground that we could find to protect our interest.”

More than a year after Dixon signed deeds transferring his late father’s property to the Eatonville CRA, the 66-year-old claims he did not understand what he was doing.

“He didn’t explain none of that to me. He didn’t explain it,” said Dixon, apparently referring to Johnson.

Earlier this year, the Eatonville Town Council disbanded the former Eatonville CRA board, which had been fully comprised of appointed members.

Like most other CRA boards statewide, the new Eatonville CRA board is made up of the town’s five elected council members, along with two appointees.

During a special session meeting Tuesday, the new CRA board voted to transfer Dixon’s property back to the 66-year-old via a quit claim deed. It is unclear how quickly that may happen.

“I had a citizen come by who was very upset,” said board member Rodney Daniels. “They said, ‘This could have been my loved one that has challenges that could have been taken advantage of.’”

Board members indicated they wanted a court-appointed guardian or lawyer to assist Dixon as the property is returned.

“A guardian should have been brought in once one of the [former board] members said, ‘This is not right,’” Cole told News 6.

Once the property is back in Dixon’s name, he will likely be required to reimburse the Town of Eatonville more than $7,000 for his past-due property taxes that were previously paid by the CRA.

The mayor believes many in the community will assist Dixon with that expense.

“I would donate money out of my own pocket,” said Cole. “And I know there’s a lot of people who will want to help him as well.”

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.