Plenty of rain and hot temperatures have been good for local lawns this summer, but also are highlighting concerns about overgrown lots in Mount Airy and related costs posed to city government.
That issue was discussed Thursday night by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners at the urging of the board’s Shirley Brinkley, who argued that city taxpayers are getting clipped under present procedures for addressing nuisance properties — through lost revenues.
“I would like to think we can do better,” Brinkley said of the situation Friday morning after digesting information presented during the meeting. “There’s got to be a better way.”
Brinkley pointed out that most local citizens take pride in maintaining neatly manicured yards. But in cases where someone dies, a house is changing hands or through other circumstances, lots can be neglected and soon a place is consumed by grass and weeds.
This poses problems for neighbors, Brinkley said, since overgrown lots can harbor snakes, mosquitoes and other pests.
Under municipal procedures, someone may file a complaint about such sites, which are then inspected by city personnel for possible nuisance violations. If that is determined, the policy calls for notices of violation to be sent to the property owners via certified mail giving them 15 days to abate the situation.
If they do not, abatement notices are sent to the city Grounds Maintenance Division which corrects the situation.
The manpower and other costs for that are billed to the property owners, who pay in most cases, based on a six-year breakdown prepared for Thursday night’s meeting. Measures of collection can include garnishment of wages and filing liens on the property.
In some cases, the municipality does not get paid, due to homeowners being deceased, problems in tracking down heirs who live out of town, lack of Social Security numbers to launch garnishment procedures and other reasons.
The six-year breakdown — which was requested by Brinkley — shows that of the total sum of $65,991 charged during that period, $43,650 was recovered — leaving more than $22,000 unpaid.
Brinkley said part of her intent in seeking that information was to determine why so much was not collected.
In reviewing the data, her conclusion is that city personnel need to identify additional methods to secure payment.
Brinkley cited a “poster-child” case to illustrate how such costs are problematic, involving a location where city crews intervened in recent years due to an overgrown lot. “You couldn’t hardly see the house,” she recalled.
Crews had to do much work there, resulting in charges exceeding $4,000. The property eventually was sold, the juncture where the city steps in to have its lien satisfied before the transaction can be finalized.
The only problem was, this did not happen, which Brinkley blames on the case somehow “falling through the cracks” or paperwork not going forward to make sure the lien was processed.
“And we didn’t get our money,” the South Ward commissioner mused Friday in discussing the problem. “That’s why I brought it up last night.”
“I think Pam (Stone) and her team do an outstanding job,” Brinkley said of Mount Airy’s finance director and staff members who are involved in billing and collection efforts along with City Attorney Hugh Campbell.
“I think they’re doing a great job, but there’s got to be a better method that’s not been found out where more money can be brought in,” she added. “I want to make sure liens are done — I want to make sure nothing is missed.”
Brinkley said such things really bother her as a commissioner who wants to save taxpayers’ money.
She does acknowledge that there are some cases where collection is near-impossible if not impossible. “If you can’t find people, you can’t find people.”
In addition to non-payment, Brinkley points to another apparent problem in which some property owners who receive nuisance notices are finding it cheaper to have city crews do the work rather than soliciting services on the open market.
“I mean, this is a bargain, and I think some of these people know this,” she commented during Thursday night’s meeting in suggesting that they are taking advantage of the rules.
Brinkley said one possible remedy is to double the fees for mowing and other tasks.
“That would be probably part of the fee schedule that you adopt,” Stone, the finance officer, said of the various charges that the commissioners approve each year when the city budget is passed before July 1.
Legal issue delayed
Discussion of another agenda item Thursday night was tabled, involving city funding for legal services related to plans to bring a Barter Theatre expansion to Mount Airy.
The services of the Sanford Holshouser firm in Raleigh were sought earlier this year after analysts with the state’s Local Government Commission declined to approve a city plan for funding the facility, deeming it too risky.
Sanford Holshouser has experience dealing with the state oversight agency, which Mount Airy officials say will be beneficial when they approach the Local Government Commission again later this year.
The commissioners allocated $5,000 for the legal firm’s services in April, which has already been absorbed by work done so far, with total fees to be about $11,000.
Commissioner Steve Yokeley, who led the discussion on this issue, said key information from the firm was not received in time for the meeting. This included an itemized breakdown of services performed and those proposed.
Yokeley asked that the matter be tabled, which the board did in a 5-0 vote.
Also, the commissioners decided to solicit upset bids for city-owned property near Westwood Park which a local resident has offered to buy.
Steve Barnard of Savannah Lane has submitted a $26,500 bid for three lots off North Franklin Road which are in a residential area. The property is part of the Westwood II subdivision, which the city government developed in the 1960s.
Based on discussion, the Barnard family already owns land in the neighborhood, and the city property sought represents adjoining lots which apparently aren’t desired for any particular purpose except providing a cushion or buffer for that.
“I rode out there,” Commissioner Brinkley said of eyeballing the land sought. “It doesn’t look like it would be good for building.”
The $26,500 offered is slightly more than the tax value for the three lots.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell said the board had the option of approving the purchase offer through a two-thirds majority vote or advertising the property for upset bids.
The commissioners decided on the upset bid process, which will involve information about the land and offer on the table being published in the newspaper.
That notice will invite anyone else to submit a counter-offer within 10 days by raising the bid by not less than 10 percent of the first $1,000 and 5 percent of the remainder.
That could lead to the city re-advertising for other upset bids, with the process to continue until no further qualifying offers are received.
This is a fiduciary measure aimed at ensuring that the best price is received for public-owned property.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.