City seeks ways to enforce liens

Published 11:30 am Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen need to find a way to reduce the number of people who owe the city money for cleaning and clearing their property, and influence more people to clean their own land, North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield said.

“It’s sad that we have to keep going in three and four times to some properties to cut them,” Mayfield told the Board of Mayor and Aldermen Monday. “We have to find a way to get these people to pay us.”

His comments came after the board reviewed five pieces of property for liens.

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Under state law, the city has the right to clean and clear private property if it is deemed to be a health and safety threat to a neighborhood and charge the property owner for the work. Officials try to give property owners an opportunity to clean their property, but if they don’t, the city either hires a private contractor or uses a city crew to do the work.

When city workers and equipment are used, the property owner is charged a fee based on the city’s pay scale for the employee, an hourly rate for using the equipment based on a scale set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for heavy-equipment costs, plus the cost of disposing of the debris.

Besides charging property owners the cost of cleaning the land, the city assesses a penalty of 25 percent of the cost to clean the site, and charges a $50 administrative fee to cover paperwork.

To recover its expenses, the city bills the property owner for the work. If the property owner does not reimburse the city within a certain period of time, the board goes to the county tax rolls and places liens on the properties to recover the costs, which means the city has to wait until the property owner pays their taxes or sells the property to recover the costs.

As of June 2013, city records showed a total of $286,370 in uncollected debt in the form of liens that 143 property owners owe the city for cutting, cleaning, clearing, and, in some cases, removing buildings from 238 parcels since 2009.

Mayfield said the total owned has risen to about $350,000, and so is the number of properties.

Recovering that money, he said, is something the board is going to have to look at “because that’s escalating.”

“Every time he (Community Development Director Victor Gray-Lewis) comes in this board meeting and he gives us this list (of cleared properties), we’re not collecting in these properties. And the state has parcels turned over to them.”

About half the total number of vacant properties in the city with liens are owned by the State of Mississippi, which picks up the properties that are not claimed at tax sales, and under state law is exempt from paying taxes and the liens on the land.

The state can make limited reimbursements to a city for property cleaning and maintenance costs, but the costs cannot exceed the amount for the property’s selling price.

Mayfield suggested increasing the administrative fee “as high as we can possibly get it” as an incentive to get property owners to clean their own property.

“I don’t want to get into a situation where we have $500,000 (in liens) and can’t collect a dime of it, because these people make no attempt to pay what they owe, and it’s the same people, time over time, over time,” he said. “We need to do something now.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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