Council sets precedence on cleanup penalties

Published 1:41 pm Thursday, September 6, 2012

Discussion about the penalties assessed on properties the city had to clean up led to a new precedent being set — no more penalties.

Councilman Larry Breland said during Tuesday’s meeting that the penalty often causes the property owner to pay more in penalties than for the actual cleanup. Some properties were actually costing only $200 to $300 to clean up, costs assessed on their taxes, but the $1,500 penalty added could lead to the city having more property on its hands than the council wants or needs.

When a property in Picayune is declared a public nuisance, either city employees or a contractor are sent out to take care of the problem, whether the problem is high grass or the demolition of a dilapidated building. The cost of that cleanup, along with administration fees and the penalty, are then assessed as a lien on the property owner’s taxes. If the taxes are not paid, along with the lien placed by the city, then the property reverts to the city. At times private citizens will purchase property at a tax sale, usually for less than the property is worth, by simply paying the back taxes.

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However Breland pointed out that the combined penalty and other fees bring the total of taxes and liens to an amount more than the property is worth in some instances, leading to the property reverting to the city, and thereby decreasing the city’s tax base.

City Attorney Nathan Farmer said the lien is billed to the property owner in the following tax year. However, the city’s attorney also pointed out that the penalty is not mandatory as are the actual cost and administrative fees, according to state law. The only problem is there is no room for the city to determine how much the penalty would be. State law mandates the penalty is either $1,500, or nothing.

Council member Wayne Gouguet agreed with Breland, stating getting a bill for $2,000 to cut grass at a home is excessive.

“There should be a penalty, but I think $1,500 is too high,” Gouguet said.

Council member Larry Watkins was concerned that property owners who have had to pay the penalty in the past might file a grievance with the city. Farmer said once a tax lien has been paid, the matter is closed because of the availability of an appeals process through the circuit court. If an appeal was not filed, or was filed and not granted, once the tax lien is paid, the matter is closed, Farmer said.

Mayor Ed Pinero was concerned about changing a practice where precedent had been set in years past, but agreed on Breland’s point.

“The point is not for us to end up with these properties,” Pinero said.

 Breland made a motion to eliminate the penalty on properties cleaned up over this fiscal year, which closes at the end of the month, with the addendum that it would be added again if the state allowed flexibility in the amount of the penalty. The motion was approved unanimously. Pinero said he expects Tuesday’s motion to become precedent for these matters, unless the legislature makes the change to allow flexibility on the amount of the penalty.

Bidding is about to take place for debris cleanup in the city following Hurricane Isaac that will involve hiring a company to do the work and require the city to seek reimbursement from FEMA. City Engineer Brooks Wallace said FEMA has agreed to reimburse the city for 75 percent of the cost to remove the materials damaged due to flooding after Hurricane Isaac.

Many homes, especially in Westchester and on the east side of town near East Canal Street, were flooded, causing residents to have to put  a lot of water damaged material and household items at the side of the road. Half of the remaining 25 percent will be picked up by the state, leaving  Picayune to pay the remaining 12.5 percent of the cost. Wallace said he estimates the city’s cost at being probably between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on how much debris needs to be removed.

There is a slight chance FEMA will increase its reimbursement to 90 percent, but Wallace cautioned city officials that is only a possibility.

Wallace also presented the council with a resolution allowing the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors to oversee the cleanup contract and thereby use the crew hired by the county to conduct the removal. Public Works Director Eric Morris agreed that would be a good idea since using city employees would mean no other work in the city would be completed while debris removal was taking place due to the lack of available manpower.

In other business the council:

— Approved entering into a contract with Mississippi Power Co. to install 10 pedestal light fixtures around historic City Hall on Goodyear Boulevard at a cost of $15,158.52.

— Approved a request from Daughters of the American Revolution to proclaim the week of Sept. 17-23 as Constitution Week.

The next city council meeting is scheduled in the council chambers on Sept. 18 at 5 p.m.