Monday night, the Claflin city council met at the city offices and heard from the owner of property at 409 3rd Street. The code enforcement officer served notice that the property was in violation of city codes concerning the upkeep of structures and storage of debris in August. Since then, Mayor Mike Urban said, the city has extended the deadline more than once.
Speaking to the Tribune Wednesday, Urban explained why the city is tough on blight.
“We work hard to keep things up because we don’t have a lot of opportunity to attract outside businesses,” he said. “But, we are located close to cities like Great Bend and Hoisington, so if we can keep our properties nice and our town appealing, some of those people who work in those towns may decide to choose to live in Claflin.”
That’s not always easy to do, he admits. In addition to the property at 409 3rd Street, two other properties were on the agenda for discussion and possible action Monday night. They included a vacant lot at 3rd and Albro, and a duplex at 512 3rd Street.
The Albro property was acquired by the city after the structures were condemned. In exchange for the deed, the city agreed to drop all accumulated fines and demolition fees. Since then, the city has been working with a party interested in building a new structure if the lot could be acquired at no charge, but the deadline for presenting a contract had passed. A new potential purchaser has surfaced however.
The city doesn’t always have such an easy time acquiring a property after the structures have been demolished.
“It’s a bad problem because the city puts money into the demolition and cleanup, but the lot still belongs to the property owner,” Urban said. “The fees and fines are added to the tax bill, and then it’s a waiting game before it goes to tax sale. It’s really hard to get our money back.”
The council voted to move forward with the condemnation process at 512 3rd Street. The duplex is currently vacant, and with good reason, Urban said.
“It’s in bad shape inside, and would take a lot of work before it could ever be habitable by people again. It will probably end up being demolished.”
But before that can happen, the city will send notice to the last known address to the owners of record, as well as any lien holders. It was determined at the meeting that may be the Bank of Holyrood. There was some doubt, however, because taxes have not been paid on the property since 2011.
A legal notice will also be published in the paper twice before a hearing at the January council meeting. If no one comes forward, the city may also try to acquire the property by deed, but often complications get in the way.
Clearly, the best scenario is for the city to stay vigilant and act at the first sign a property is beginning to be neglected, and that’s exactly what Urban does his best to do.
“Our main purpose is to make sure owners of these properties understand we won’t let up or let the situation drop,” he said. “If they don’t comply, they will face court, penalties, fines, and possibly even jail. Unfortunately, that what it takes sometimes.”
Urban isn’t without compassion, however. Take Stevens, the owner of 409 3rd Street.
“That house was already in poor condition when he bought it last summer,” Urban said. He explained the city sent him a letter to appear in August because there was a lot of clutter and the lawn hadn’t been mowed. At that meeting, Stevens assured the council he would take care of those and other problems with the house. A list was made, and he set to work, but ran into problems and didn’t complete the work in the time frame he told the council.
“We extended the deadline into September, and again into October,”Urban said. “Still it didn’t get done.” He concedes, Stevens may have believed the work could have been done more timely, until he got into the project and found other issues that needed to be dealt with. There were also scheduling pressures with contractors to deal with, and Stevens purchased another property in Claflin around the same time that also needs to be improved. In addition, he had shared with the council at a previous meeting that a former tenant had promised to do some of the work but had failed to.
At the meeting, Stevens explained he had painted most of the window trims, installed new soffit and was addressing the ceiling of the front porch where rotted wood was found. Rotted fascia had been covered, and a kennel in the back yard that had been choked with weeds had been removed. But a pile of limbs in back still needed to be removed, Gary Vaughan, the city’s public officer and acting police chief said, in order to deter possums or other vermin.
“As long as we see a quite a bit of progress, we give owners the benefit of the doubt,” Urban said. “But it can get to the point where you wonder if they aren’t just trying to get by without doing what needs to be done. We have to keep our thumbs on them pretty hard and stay tough.”
Vaughan stopped by to gauge progress Tuesday, and while not perfect, the minimum requirements had been met. Still Steven’s work continues.