Saturday, March 17, 2012

Property maintenance panel to propose steep tax hike for properties city designates as abandoned

Story and photos by Morgan Rhodes
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

Properties the city deems abandoned would face steep tax increases, under a plan a special committee drafted Tuesday evening for the consideration by another committee and the city council. (Photo: 317 Second Street)

The recommendations of the Property Maintenance Code Committee are aimed at expediting the process of fixing or removing vacant, run-down homes in Midway.

The committee examined property maintenance ordinances from Versailles and Covington. Those ordinances define “abandoned urban properties” as “any vacant structure or vacant or unimproved lot or parcel of ground in the city which has been vacant or unimproved for a period of at least one (1) year.” (Covington property maintenance ordinance is posted on a special Property Maintenance page of the Midway Messenger, here.)

Under the plan for Midway, each year city officials would identify and inspect abandoned properties before increasing their tax rate to 75 cents per $100 worth of value, more than seven times the normal rate of 10.2 cents.

The high rate is meant to encourage property owners to fix deficient properties so they are code-compliant, sell the property, or demolish the structure on the property, said Dan Roller, chairman of the committee and a council member.

Later last week, Roller circulated via email a 2007 Richmond ordinance that created a Vacant Property Review Commission and uses condemnation rather than high tax rates for blighted, vacant properties. He said he would “include it in the options presented to city council.” (Photo: 321 Second St.)

Many of the properties currently classified as abandoned by city officials are vacant because of foreclosure or the death of the owner, or are unfit to be sold, Roller said. A list of those is posted on the Property Maintenance page.

In order to be effective, committee members agreed the current ordinance needs to be more direct and provide consequences rather than encouragement. “We need to recommend an ordinance to expedite the process and then follow through to condemnation,” said Joy Arnold, a council and committee member.

The Property Maintenance Committee will make recommendations for accelerated taxes on abandoned properties to the council’s and Ordinance and Policy Committee at Monday’s council meeting, set for 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.

The committee also wants to place strict time restraints on the inspection process, which now has no time limit. There is no final deadline for owners to get their properties up to code.

The process to identify blighted and vacant houses in Midway began in December 2010. Mayor Tom Bozarth and Council Member Doris Leigh identified a group of houses that appeared to be out of compliance, Roller said. The properties are seen as a hazard to police and firefighters and unsightly to view, he said.

The mayor then sent letters to the county Planning and Zoning Commission requesting inspection of those properties. The commission sent letters to property owners to request contact with inspectors. If the owners contacted P & Z, inspections were set up at the property in question. If deficiencies were found, owners were given a specific amount of time to get those deficiencies fixed. (Photo: 112 Oak St.)

However, if a property owner does not get his or her property up to code by some deadline, Roller said, additional time is often given before another inspection. “Somewhere along the line, nothing changed with these properties,” he said.

One goal of the new ordinance will be to clarify the inspection process and make sure there are definite time limits and set consequences for noncompliance.

To ensure the inspection process is done correctly, the committee will recommend that letters to owners be sent using certified mail. Arnold said this would keep property owners from using the excuse that they did not get the letter. “We want to tighten up that process,” said Roller.

One change already made to make the inspection process easier is a separate file on each property instead of piling everything into one file. A first draft of the list of recommendations is posted on the Property Maintenance page. Roller said he and Arnold would “get together and tough it out” to produce a final version.

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