VICKSBURG — The City of Vicksburg has $286,370 in uncollected debt on its books that some city officials say it might never fully recover.
It’s money the city says 143 property owners owe for cutting, cleaning, clearing, and, in some cases, removing buildings from 238 parcels between 2009 and May.
The State of Mississippi owns nearly half of those properties, 67, representing parcels never bought at county tax sales or reclaimed by the owners within two years after the sale, meaning they were forfeited to the state, and remain on the market.
Under state law, the city has the right to clean and clear private property if it is deemed to be a health and safety threat to a neighborhood and charge to property owner for the work.
To recover those expenses, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen goes to county tax rolls and places liens on the properties to recover the costs.
It’s a process that usually begins with a complaint from a neighbor.
“Most of the properties we deal with are called in by neighbors,” Alderman Mike Mayfield said. “People think we go out and look for problems when we notify them about their property, but it’s their neighbors who tell us.”
The first step involves contacting the property owner to get them to clean the land, a process in which the property owner might receive cleaning-deadline extensions of up to 90 days.
“We try to work with people to help them so they can clean their property,” Alderman Sid Beauman said. “But there comes a time when you have to take action and step in.”
When the Board of Mayor and Aldermen authorizes Building and Inspection Director Victor Gray-Lewis to clear the property, he has the option to have city workers and equipment clean the site or hire a private contractor.
If the work involves cutting, cleaning and clearing the land, a private contractor is hired. If it requires demolishing and removing a building, city Street Department employees do the work.
When city workers and equipment are used, the property owner is charged a fee based on the city’s pay scale for the employee, an hourly rate for using the equipment based on a scale set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for heavy-equipment costs, plus the cost of disposing the debris.
According to the city’s Human Resources Department, street equipment operators make from $11.67 to $16.96 an hour. According to FEMA’s equipment rate scale, a track hoe, which is used by the city to raze the building, can run from $18 to $400 an hour, depending on the size and type of unit. The rate for a dump truck is $35 to $105 an hour based on the truck bed’s capacity.
Once the property is cleared, the clerk’s office sends a notice to the property owner that a special assessment, or lien, for the amount will be attached to the property’s tax record. The board then approves the attaching of the lien.
After the lien is attached, city officials wait for the property owner to pay the lien to clear it from the property’s title or sell the property which means the city will get its money after the sale.
Some properties, however, have multiple liens accumulated over the years, and those liens may make the property hard to sell.
According to special assessment lists obtained from the City Clerk’s Office under the Freedom of Information Act, accumulated liens on some properties are in excess of $1,000.
As of May, one lot on Clay Street accumulated nine liens totaling about $6,016 between 2009 and 2013. Another on Buck Street had four liens totaling $5,347. The State of Mississippi has a total of 107 liens against its Vicksburg properties totaling about $30,580.
Under state law, Secretary of State’s office spokeswoman Pamela Weaver said, the state can make limited reimbursements to a city for property cleaning and maintenance costs, but the costs cannot exceed the amount for the property’s selling price. The city, she said, is prohibited from putting a lien on property owned by the state.
In other cases, the property might be “heir property,” with up to 10 or more owners on a deed who need to be contacted.
Heir property is “causing a big, big problem here in Vicksburg,” Mayfield said. “More often than not, nobody wants to take responsibility when there are several people tied up in the property.
“It makes it hard for us as public officials, it makes it hard for our inspection department, because we have to send certified letters, sometimes all over the country trying to contact people,” he said. “Some people won’t accept them, or they’ll send them back with a note saying, ‘Call my brother in such-and-such area. If he won’t help you, I can’t (or won’t).'”
City Attorney Lee Thames said the problem with liens is that the combination of most of the lot sizes and the cost of the lien makes selling the property almost prohibitive.
“It’s a spiraling problem. What happens is you take down a house and then you have to cut the grass, and then the people don’t pay their taxes, so they lose it, and the lot’s never worth all the liens against it.”
A lot of the older houses with liens, he said, were built on small lots before the city’s planning and zoning ordinances were approved. Under the ordinances’ stricter regulations, he added, “you can’t put up a decent structure.”
Thames said property owners — and state officials — have called him asking him to waive the lien on a piece of property so it can sell.
“We can’t waive the lien, because that’s an illegal donation. If the Legislature would pass a law allowing city to forgive the lien, we could do it.
“Liens discourage the buyer. I think it’s a matter of economics — how much the lien is and how much is it worth to the person wanting to buy it. I’d love to put the property up for sale and put it back on the tax rolls,” he said.