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Taxpayers pick up the tab for many neglectful property owners

By Pam G. Dempsey, CU-CitizenAccess.org and Daniel Mueller/For CU-CitizenAccess.org/ Neglectful property owners in Champaign and Urbana have left their fellow citizens with more than un-mowed lawns, deteriorating houses and yard trash.

They also have left a hefty cleanup bill.

A CU-CitizenAccess.org review of city data shows that Champaign and Urbana taxpayers have paid about $145,000 to mow those lawns, haul trash or board up entrances to vacant property in the years 2009 and 2010. The data was obtained through Freedom of Information requests submitted to both cities.(See Champaign data here and Urbana data here


Click the image to browse the Nuisance Property Public Database in a new browser window.

The cities attempt to recover unpaid costs by filing liens against the properties, which must be paid now or when the property is sold.

 

 

Champaign typically spends less than $30,000 a year to clean up properties while Urbana spends between $15,000 and $60,000 a year to do the same.

Yet an analysis of liens filed for nonpayment of junk and debris bills or weed bills in 2009 and 2010 shows that most of this money goes unpaid.  (See raw database here)

Champaign and Urbana see a total of about 3,000 nuisance housing cases a year – and, on average, between 80 and 95 percent of homeowners clean up their own properties.

But there are a few who don't.

For 2009 and 2010, Champaign and Urbana filed more than 350 liens for unpaid junk and debris cleanups as well as weed abatements. The liens, which include not only the contractor cost but additional fines and fees, totaled about $148,500.

But as of June 22, just over $46,300 worth of liens have been since been released – including a $7,500 for one demolition. This makes up about 30 percent of the liens filed.

Liens may not always be released for the full amount owed, said Champaign City Attorney Laura Hall. Sometimes the city will release a  lien for a lesser amount to allow the owner to sell the property to someone who may better care for it, she said. 

It’s unclear from some of the liens how much property owners paid to resolve them.  

Urbana city attorney Curt Borman said that the amount filed on a lien includes contractor costs, as well as city fines and fees.

Lien amounts do not include the cost to file the lien or release the lien (a $25 fee) nor any additional fees the city may incur if the case goes to court, he said.

Champaign resident Steve Gilbert has lived on East Washington Street for about 15 years. He said the vacant lot a few blocks down the street in Urbana has been a long-term problem.

“That really doesn’t do a lot of good for neighbors,” Gilbert said. “I see raccoons, I see groundhogs, I see possums, I see snakes frequently.”

The city of Urbana now maintains the property – valued at about $11,000, according to county property records. And every time Urbana cuts grass or removes weeds, it costs the out-of-town property owner – Jeff Boysaw of University Park who could not be reached for comment.

As of June 22, the property had accumulated more than $9,000 across 15 liens filed in 2009 and 2010 for overgrown grass and weeds, according to the Champaign County recorder’s office.

The liens have yet to be paid back.

Local ordinances define “nuisance” or “blighted” properties several ways – including violations of noise laws, multiple police calls and unsafe interior building conditions.

Yet nuisance ordinances also set standards for tall grass and weeds, garbage, inoperable vehicles and vacant structures – problems anyone can easily spot from a sidewalk, street or other public right of way.

“I think it’s pretty important to live in a city to have some reasonable conditions and protections,” said Libby Tyler, Urbana’s community development director. “Most complaints we receive are very legitimate … People are concerned about their property values and quality of life.”

Jason Arrasmith, environmental control officer for the city of Urbana, handles this type of "nuisance" housing cases.

Arrasmith said the city first sends a letter to the nuisance property owner. If the problem has not been resolved in seven days, the city then sends out a contractor who bills the property owner. If this fee has not been paid in 30 days, the city files a lien against the property owner.

If the problems continue, then the city has the right to clean up the property without notice, Arrasmith said.

Both Champaign and Urbana contract out the work to abate the problems.

Champaign environmental inspector Leslie Mitchell said contractors do get more money as a deterrent to property owners who rely on the city to care for their property.  Champaign maintains a list of contractors it uses and rotates jobs among the list.

“Contractors are paid a little more than what you do your work for because we don’t want to be a mowing service,” Mitchell said.

Unless there’s a life and safety issue, Champaign gives property owners 10 days to clean up the property. If it’s a repeat problem within the same calendar year, the city gives them less time to take care of the problem.

Last week, Mitchell visited the site of the former Niro’s Gyros on East Green Street – owned locally by the Larson Company, according to county property records. Old newspapers were blowing across the vacant restaurant’s parking lot. Weeds and grass had grown tall.

Mitchell was there to post a final notice that gave the owners 24 hours to clean up the problem.

“I noticed this property as part of our systematic and routine inspections,” Mitchell said.

The property owners never did contact Mitchell, and by Monday, the property was cleared – courtesy of the city.

“There’s just a lot that happens with these properties,” Mitchell said.

Owners may be away on extended vacations, or there may be a death or illness in the family.

“There could be a number of different reasons,” she said. “As long as they correct it, then we’re willing to give them time.”

Maxine Brumleve lives down the street from a home with a collapsing front porch roof. She said tight financial times and an older population in Urbana make it difficult for residents to keep up with home repairs and lawn upkeep.

“With the economy the way it is, it seems they’re doing as much as they can,” Brumleve said. “I think the city’s doing everything they can do. They’re helping people.”

But cities are doing it with fewer resources under the current economy. In any housing case, Mitchell visits property at least three times.

That’s why David Oliver, Champaign’s code compliance manager, said he would like to increase the automatic $100 fee the city charges for nuisance property.

“So, for a $100, three trips to the property – it’s not really covering all the expenses – if you look at administrative expenses, fuel costs, the benefits of having a legal department that supports our program, if you take all those intangible things into costs as well, the administrative fee is very very small,” Oliver said.

For some, the benefits outweigh the cost.

“It’s about our neighborhoods and also about the citizens and protecting people’s investments,” Tyler said.

Check out this interactive map to see what properties in your neighborhood have/had liens.

 

 

View Nuisance housing cases in a full screen map

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