After years of neglect, officials deemed the abandoned home in the northeastern section of the city, cluttered with trash and a haven for vagrants, worthy of the code enforcement hall of infamy. The city declared it a “chronic nuisance.”
Since 2009, code enforcement officials had sent nine letters, some of them certified, to owners Robert and Lavina Barkus of Royal Palm Beach. All came back as undelivered, according to a thick file at City Hall.
Finally the city spent thousands of dollars to do the work itself and bill the owner. This spring it sent a four-man crew over two days to clear out bushes and haul off trash. The total, with administrative costs: more than $3,000.
In the past, the city’s next option would have been to place a lien on a piece of property and stand in line with other creditors.
But there’s a new eyesore sheriff in town.
In 2011 the city passed new rules. Now, outstanding bills go on an owner’s property tax bill, something that’s just a bit tougher to dodge.
In two years the program has paid off, especially for a strapped city happy for every penny of income.
In 2012, it hit 212 property owners’ tax bills for a total of $97,357; it so far has collected $72,173, or about 74 percent of the total. This year chronic nuisance properties, told to pay up or see the debt on their tax bills, wrote checks totaling $129,711.
Another 200 tracts didn’t and had the debt tacked onto their tax bills; the total is $96,262. Those owners have until April 1 to pay.
That’s nearly a quarter of a million dollars, of which the city contends that in the past it would have retrieved little or none.
Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell stressed it’s not about the money.
“What this is about is getting people to keep their properties maintained,” she said this week. “All the money is recouping. We’re not making a killing on this.”
The process kicks in if the city goes to a residential or commercial property three or more times within 30 days.
It can be for unkempt lawns, loud music, drug activity, disorderly conduct or prostitution. Owners must fix the problems or be hit with penalties by a city magistrate.
If the city ends up taking over the remediation, owners are charged.
In the case of the Barkuses, part of the problem might be that Mr. Barkus is dead; an obituary says he died in 2011. Phone numbers for his widow were disconnected. Attempts to track down relatives familiar with the situation, some as far away as North Carolina and West Virginia, were unsuccessful.
The Barkuses’ property was at the top of the list of 200 property owners — amounts owed ranged from $7.16 up to the Barkuses’ $3,028.32. It was one of 19 billed at least $1,000 and one of seven over $2,000. The Post tried to track down all seven of those property owners, without luck.
One property was listed as owned by J.P. Morgan Acquisition Corp., in Phoenix. Calls eventually led to Maribel Ferrer, Miami spokeswoman for JPMorgan Chase, who referred inquiries to a management firm in Fort Worth, Texas. Representatives of that firm couldn’t be reached Friday afternoon to ask about the bill.
Commissioner Mitchell had been pushing for the change in the city’s nuisance rules since 2006, when she heard about a similar program in Milwaukee.
If the city had more in liens on a home than a potential seller wanted to pay for it, then no one wants it and it continues as an eyesore — and grows worse. But if the city agrees to reduce the lien to move the property, the owner “just got away with three years of really bad behavior and everybody who lived around there had to endure it.”
Other Palm Beach County cities say they’re looking into West Palm Beach’s success and Lake Worth has adopted a similar program.
Statewide and nationwide, “There seem to be more jurisdictions moving towards having them considered special tax assessment liens, because of the presumed ease of collections,” said Michael Titmuss, chief code enforcement officer of city of Fort Myers and president of the Florida Association of Code Enforcement.
Mayor Jeri Muoio loves the program.
“We’re more likely to get our money because it’s on the tax roll. But more importantly, we’re getting these nuisance properties cleaned up,” Muoio said. “It’s been working really well. The people can see a real difference.”
Staff researchers Fedor Zarkhin and Michelle Quigley contributed to this story.