State of Ohio No. 1 property code violator in Springfield

By the numbers

700 — code violations by the state in 2016

$775,000 — city’s 2016 budget for code enforcement

$33,000 — cost to maintain vacant lots owned by the state each year

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The Springfield News-Sun investigates government spending, including recent stories digging into the top five delinquent taxpayers in Clark and Champaign counties.

The state of Ohio is the No. 1 repeat property code offender in the city of Springfield with more than 700 violations so far in 2016.

The city will spend about $775,000 on code enforcement this year, according to Community Development Director Shannon Meadows. About $33,000 of that will go to maintaining vacant lots owned by the state, she said, all of the properties forfeited after no one bought them at sheriff’s sales.

“This is a serious problem,” Meadows said.

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The number of vacant lots in Springfield is on the rise, she said, part of the aftermath of the massive foreclosure crisis that swept across the state during the Great Recession.

The state isn’t required to maintain the lots, she said, so the city covers the cost to mow and remove trash from the properties.

“Everybody thinks the world is their trash can,” said Donna Campbell, who lives next to a vacant lot on North Jefferson Street.

The lot next to her home was vacant for several years before she and her husband became fed up with the weeds and began to maintain it themselves.

Something should change, Meadows said, to stop the cost of maintaining these vacant lots from falling onto the city,

Code enforcement in Springfield

Springfield manages about 15,000 code violation cases a year, Meadows said, and often relies on a relationship with the community to call in complaints.

“There are tens of thousands of properties in the community,” she said. “We need those phone calls because that allows us to respond to the situation before it’s out of control.”

The most common violation in the city is weeds. And while it’s also one of the cheapest violations for the city to handle, she said the cost of mowing can add up.

In 2016, the city has spent almost $200,000 on enforcing weeds violations.

>>READ MORE: Who are top 5 delinquent taxpayers in Champaign County?

There’s also the uncalculated cost to neighbors living near an abandoned lot, she said, which hurts their property values and quality of life.

“It really looks pitiful,” said Nicole Womack, who lives near multiple vacant lots in the 400 block East Euclid Avenue.

She’s seen the city mow the lots, she said, but wishes they were better cared for.

“We are not mowing those properties at a level that you would mow your house,” Meadows said, because that’s too expensive. “We are mowing them to do nothing more than address the health and safety issue.”

Tall grass can attract mice and other rodents, she said, and people tend to dump trash in vacant lots that can become a health hazard.

Repeat offenders

The top five repeat violators so far in 2016 are the state of Ohio, investor owners Michael and Mary Talbert, out-of-state investor owner Jean Halahan, the Springfield Metropolitan Housing Authority, and property management company City Forest of Springfield according to city records obtained by the Springfield News-Sun.

The Talberts live in Springfield and have had 51 violations in 2016 at more than 20 properties, records showed. Halahan had 30 violations at 23 properties. SMHA has had 21 violations at 15 properties. And City Forest had 16 violations at 16 properties.

SMHA Executive Director Par Tolliver said the agency responds to notices from the city within 48 hours.

“We try to stay on top of them as much as we can,” he said.

SMHA responds to the city’s notices about 90 percent of the time, Meadows said.

Tolliver said he wasn’t aware the housing authority was one of the city’s most common repeat code violators. He said he’ll sit down with his staff members to discuss if changes can be made.

The Talberts didn’t respond to requests for comment and Halahan and City Forest couldn’t be reached.

All five own several properties in Springfield, according to the records, and most violations are for overgrown weeds and junk and trash.

“The more properties you own, the higher chance you’re going to make the list,” said Stephen Thompson, planning, zoning and code administrator for the city.

But discounting the state, the city has seen an increase in responsiveness from the other violators, Thompson said.

It’s ramped up efficiency, he said, to get contractors out to sites quickly. In response, owners are taking action faster to prevent receiving a bill from the city.

The city can also treat repeat offenders differently. When someone has the same violation more than once, he said, the city isn’t required to give them notice before sending the case to a contractor.

The No. 1 offender

The state of Ohio is listed as the owner for more than half the repeat violations in Springfield, Meadows said.

The state doesn’t maintain these properties or respond to code violations, she said, so Springfield absorbs all of the costs of cutting the grass or clean up other problems.

An attorney general’s decision about 80 years ago absolved the state from maintaining those properties.

“There’s no one to send a notice to,” she said.

Out of 308 abandoned properties in Springfield, 185 have been forfeited to the state. Properties that go through foreclosure and aren’t sold at sheriff’s auction are turned over to the state.

The number of forfeited properties has increased greatly in the past several years, she said, due to the foreclosure crisis. And that means an increased cost to the city to maintain them.

The ongoing problem, she said, shows a disconnect between local and state government.

“These numbers have become nearly unmanageable,” Meadows said.

Possible solutions

State Rep. Kyle Koehler said one of his main goals is to get local and state government on the same page.

“Obviously we need to work together better,” the Springfield Republican said.

He hasn’t heard complaints about the costs to maintain state-owned lots before, he said, but he hopes a new bill in the Statehouse will cut down on the amount of abandoned properties across Ohio.

A bill that was passed in the House last session would expedite the foreclosure process, Koehler said, and get them sold more quickly.

Programs like Mow-to-Own and the Clark County Land Bank can also cut down on the number of vacant properties, he said.

In fact, about a dozen properties will be removed from the city’s abandoned lots list at the end of the year because of the Mow-to-Own, Thompson said. That program allows neighbors who live next door to a vacant property to gain ownership through taking care of it.

Campbell participated in the program when it became available and now owns the lot next to her outright.

“We applied for it right away,” she said.

To increase the number of lots involved in the program, Meadows said, it could be extended in the future to people or organizations who don’t live next to vacant properties. But she wants to see how Mow-to-Own goes for a little longer before expanding it.

Even if the top five repeat code violators disappeared, Meadows said, they only make up about 2 percent of total violations in the city.

It’s a big cost, she said, considering the city only ever gets back about 12 percent of that money from violators.

“Our strength is to make sure a violation doesn’t happen,” she said.

The only way that can happen, she said, is if neighbors and the city work together.

“We need people to partner with us to provide the best service,” she said.

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