Vacant Property Ordinance
Letter to the Editor;
Written by Commissioner Larry Kiker
Already emails are streaming into District 3, questioning why this commissioner is not supporting the Vacant Property Ordinance (VPO) program, so that our communities can get cleaned up. Shouldn’t I consider quality of life important? After all, would I like to live next door to THAT? Well the easy answer is no, nor should anyone.
VPOor not? This all began when a company lobbied the county with a quick and easy program that offered registration as a possible solution to a problem that plagues much of unincorporated Lee County. At first it appeared to have some merit, but I challenge whether it will make any difference. After looking at what is really going on with this issue, registering offenders for the sake of fixing a problem that took years to create without resolving enforcement issues is like playing catch with helium balloons.
Let’s begin with Commissioner Mann’s comment during a meeting that the registration would accomplish what we are trying to do. When quizzed what was it we needed to accomplish in his district, he responded with, clean up the neighborhood’s! Of course we agree, but as I have learned sometimes you can violently agree. But how?
Vacant property registration is aimed at bank owned properties that apparently have no one to call to maintain vacant properties properly. But there are significant subtleties that need to be discussed.
1) State legislation allocated an extra $50m to advance the backlog of foreclosures this last year.
2) This code enforcement citing’s have already decreased by over 50% this last year.
3) This ends up being a revenue generator for the county and alas, for the 3rd party that is prescribing the program and we are talking about millions. However, there has been little to no discussion on the actual expense for code enforcement as it exists today. This will become your expense.
4) The total offenders that this program targets are bank owned properties that are out of compliance. They account for no more than 12% of all the infractions. This year so far, Lehigh has had approximately 1780 incidents of which 622 are identified as bank owned. Federal banks (Fredie Mac and Fannie Mae) will not comply to local ordinances. We must register approximately 30,000 properties to manage 200.
5) Do we need another layer of ‘government’ to fix a problem? I don’ think so. Do we need to address the code enforcement issues now? I think so.
6) When asking which staff in the Lee County organization is driving this new ordinance, I haven’t found a name or organization yet. Why is legal so insistent on managing this business?
7) There is sufficient concern regarding the legality of such a program. Even though it has been around it is just now being challenged in court and many judgements do not favor this action. Increasing our liability for Lee County doesn’t seem particularly healthy at this time.
Back to Commissioner Mann’s statement, we need to accomplish a major clean up. Well it becomes simple when you look at what I think is the real objective.
1) Clean up the mess.
2) Save the empty houses and buildings.
3) Put families and businesses back into the empty buildings. Communities only become whole when people live in them, taking care of their own properties.
4) Maintain a system that promotes compliance from now on.
This new system (VPO) will end up tracking who hasn’t paid, not who is out of compliance. We have few resources being used to address the real issues, so we must be careful of how we spend our time. The first investment in our time and resources should be to re-examine the code that we enforce and to what degree non-compliance is allowed.
The most glaring example, we don’t track our repeat offenders. There is one home address that was brought to my attention, an absentee for many years. They have been cited over 22 times for not mowing. The grass has grown in excess of ten feet at times, yes ten feet. Here is the really startling fact, with the process that code enforcement has to use, they (property owners) have NEVER stood in front of a magistrate and have never been held accountable. What a surprise that just before the system actually has a chance to work, the lawn gets mowed. By my calculations, it takes two month for it to grow 18 inches, 2 weeks to cite them, 60 days to wait for return mail, then we give them a month to mow it. That means an average of 2 mows a year and no magistrate involvement. You are right I don’t want to live next door to that, nor should you.
Repeat offenders, should automatically get daily fines 30 days after being cited until the problem is resolved. The only way to distinguish that, put them in front of the magistrate. It won’t take many downtown visits before word gets around. We need to address 1780 citations not 200. We need to spread accountability around, not money. We need to get real. Our legal organization should be spending their time assisting staff who should be in turn working with our residents and business owners with our current system, fix that first!
Institute a public information campaign. Lee County is serious about compliance!” After that, “Lee County is serious about enforcement!” When word gets around, properties will get cleaned up, communities will look better and people will return to residence and business will occupy these now distressed buildings. Then we will have accomplished something.