SYLACAUGA -- The city is no nonger in the nuisance property cleanup business.
At its June 4 meeting, Sylacauga City Council voted to indefinitely suspend cleanup services offered by the Street Department for nuisance properties.
“(Street Department superintendent Tommy Woolley) and I have talked about this, and this has kind of gotten out of hand, and I think its being abused,” Council President Rocky Lucas said at a council work session preceding the meeting. “Personally, I don’t think that it’s the taxpayers’ place to pay to have private property demolished.”
In lieu of court action to deem a property a nuisance, which costs the city and property owner money and time, the City Council enacted an ordinance in 2007 declaring that a $250 fee could be paid to the city, and in exchange, the city would burn the nuisance structure as a training exercise for the Fire Department.
In 2009 the fee was increased to $350, but Woolley said costs of demolition have risen far above that nominal amount.
“The $350 originally was because we were burning most of the houses, so it was a cleanup fee for where we were burning houses,” he said. “Now, it’s a tear-down process, and it has worked itself into where some of the houses people want torn down are not even a nuisance. That’s where the cost has exploded, and I don’t think that’s what the ordinance was designed for, and that $350 is surely not even a drop in the bucket of what we’re spending.”
As part of the council’s action, the city will refund any pending fees paid for cleanup. At least one project was in the works at that time, Woolley said.
The last two cleanup projects the Street Department completed cost the city nearly $5,000. Lucas said one demolition totaled $3,125 and another was $2,421, yet property owners paid only $350 each.
A major problem with the cleanup service is that it makes the city compete with private contractors, Woolley said. Councilman Tom Roberts said there is no competition when the city is offering the service at such a low price.
“An extremely low-cost demolition service is not what that was intended to be or what it should be,” Roberts said.
City Clerk-Treasurer Patricia Carden said when the ordinance was put in place, the city was going to court with property owners who could not afford to demolish their nuisance structures. She said it “was a long, drawn-out process, and then (the city) still ended up taking the house down.” Rather than footing legal expenses and demolition costs, the city opted to allow property owners to pay the fee. At some point over the years, the city moved from burning the houses to tearing them down, Carden said.
Councilman Joe Hogan said the council “should look at the nuisance ordinance and update it and make sure the ownership is put back on the owners to the point where, if you don’t maintain the property as described in the ordinance, then we put a lien on it, and eventually the city takes control of the property.”
Lucas said his biggest issue with the ordinance as it was is that it left the remainder of the cleanup costs on the city.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s the taxpayers’ problem to pay for privately owned property, whether it’s a nuisance or not,” he said.