Officials follow system for property cleanup

By MEGAN PHILLIPS,

Many Northsiders know how to and can take care of their own property. However, sometimes cities have to address the issue.

For the city of Madison, officials must first identify a need for a property to be cleaned. The zoning ordinance is one of the tools used. Overgrown grass, dilapidated structures and yard debris are generally unacceptable.

Next the building and permits department will either open bids for a private company to complete the work or ask the public works department to take care of the issue.

“It depends on the kind of work it is,” Director of Building and Permits Ken Wilbanks said. “If public works can do it, we’ll try to use them.”

After the work is complete, the city then bills the property owner through a lien on the property. The lien grants the holder, in this case the city of Madison, a specified amount of money upon sale of the property. “If it (the property) goes to foreclosure, the work is billed back against the property. If the owner receives a tax bill, there’s a charge in there, so it gets paid.”

Police officer Chris Henderson was hired last summer as the code enforcement officer. He is able to issue warnings and citations to residents for noncompliance with city ordinances.

Henderson’s first task when he sees a code violation is to send a 30-day courtesy letter, which alerts the resident of the violation and gives him or her 30 days to come into compliance with the maintenance code.

“At the end of 30 days, if (most of the issue) is complete, I give them a one-time extension for another 30 days… It’s at my discretion whether to fight or give them an extension,” Henderson said.

If a resident does not comply within 30 days, he or she will be issued a fine of up to $1,500 per day until action is taken to fix the issue.

“I’m agreeable to work with people… I’m having good success with just that courtesy letter. My goal is to work with people, leave a good taste in their mouth. But, at the end of the day, I’ve still got a job to do.”

The most common violations he sees are rotted wood, faded paint, tarps on roofs and cars in front and side yards.

“If it’s a violation, it’s a violation. I’m willing to give people a fair chance to get it cleaned up — no harm, no foul.”

 

Ridgeland has two avenues officials can use to ensure private property is well-maintained.

“There’s a property maintenance code and a state statute, which affords rights to cities and property owners,” Community Development Director Alan Hart said. “We work really hard in Ridgeland to try to understand what the problem is, why a property becomes overgrown. Just because there’s a violation doesn’t mean a criminal’s on the other side of the door.”

Officials try to coordinate with local churches and Boy Scout troops to help citizens maintain their property and provide necessities for the resident.

“We’ll go through a series of warnings if we can’t get a level of communication. In the case of cleaning private property, state statute 21-19-11 sets forth very specific notice requirements and limitations of things a municipality can do.”

The most common violation Ridgeland deals with is an overgrown yard at a foreclosed home, Hart said.

“We’ll give a 14-day notice period and then appear before the mayor and board.”

Like Madison, Ridgeland public works crews are used for minor offenses and contracted labor for larger projects.

 After the work is complete, the owner is assessed the costs. The Madison County tax collector’s office is charged with recouping the money. “It goes on the tax bill if it’s not paid… There’s also an auction opportunity, where somebody can buy the property for ad valorem taxes,” Hart said.

The entire process can take months. “The system is designed to ensure that there is a due process in place for the property owner,” he said. “That’s very important. The second is to ensure the city or municipality will be reimbursed for expenses to enter private property, to maintain it for benefit of the public — it isn’t for the benefit of one property owner.”

 

The reservoir, like Madison and Ridgeland, has a standard system of cleaning up leased property.

“We have adopted the international maintenance code,” Pearl River Water Supply District General Manager John Sigman said. “Rankin County, Madison, Ridgeland, pretty much all cities and districts have adopted the code. When we see something that isn’t compliant or receive a complaint, we send our code enforcement guys out there, and they will make an assessment if they find noncompliance.”

The enforcement officer will try to communicate with the resident, asking them to take care of the issue at hand.

“We give them a couple of weeks to make the correction themselves. After that, if there isn’t any improvement, we go back by and tell them the next thing they’ll get is an affidavit from the justice court.”

After reservoir officials file the affidavit, the justice court is in charge of calling on the resident and PRV officials to testify.

“Usually, the court will impose a fine, but that’s up to the court. The PRV doesn’t leverage the fine, and they can run at several hundred dollars. They vary.”

Along with the fine, the justice court will give the resident an order to clean up the property, as originally requested.

“If they don’t follow through, we do it again,” Sigman said. “Eventually, the property owner or jurisdiction can appeal to the chancery court, but it usually doesn’t get there. The court can do anything — declare the lease to have been defaulted or impose higher levels of fines and things like that.”

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