BROWNSTOWN — As Brownstown officials entered an abandoned house, they could easily have exclaimed “Rats!”
That’s because the house at 203 N. Water St. has a rat infestation problem.
Conner Barnette of Hoosier Planning Associates LLC, the city’s planning and zoning administrator, said neighbors told him the house had been abandoned for 12 to 18 months. According to the Jackson County GIS map, the 0.2 acre property has been owned by Cheryl Foster since 1997.
“Right now we have some vague ordinances on file with the city to deal with this stuff,” he told Brownstown City Council at a recent meeting. “The rats – and they are rats, not mice – are starting to come to neighboring properties.”
His recommendation to resolve the issue is that City Attorney Zach Miller review the county’s property maintenance ordinance and apply it to the city. Barnette is also the Jackson County Building Commissioner.
“I think it’s really good,” Barnette said of the county’s order. “We have absolutely no problem copying and pasting that for the city.”
Miller said he was okay with doing this so the issue could be brought to a judge as soon as possible because there are neighbors harassed by the issue.
“That’s my No. 1 concern,” he said.
Barnette said the county has set aside $20,000 to handle such issues, and the city can set it at any amount it chooses.
The county’s process is to send a letter to the owner and give them 10 days to respond. If they respond, they have 60 days to resolve the issue.
“In this case, having walked through this place, we would just level what we were looking for,” Barnette said. “If they don’t cooperate, don’t respond, whatever the situation, we will get a court order. It usually takes 30 days.
After that, the work of leveling the house and making sure the utilities are capped would be left to the contractors to bid on, and that cost would be listed on the homeowner’s tax bill as a lien.
“If they don’t pay it, it goes to tax sale after 18 months,” Barnette said. “Eventually (the city) will be reimbursed, I imagine. Let’s say you got $18,000 plus back taxes by leveling that and having the utilities, having the site looted, rebuilding it, you’d get $20,000 and up The biggest problem, we have to have that money up front.
Since the neighbors have rats in and out of their yard, however, he said that needs to be fixed.
“I would highly recommend getting a prescription passed with a few teeth behind it, even if you don’t have the funds right now, because if so, there are fines,” he said.
The city could fine the owner $100 a day for 10 days, and if he doesn’t cooperate, a fine of $200 for 10 days until it reaches a maximum of $3,000.
“So you have the opportunity to act,” Barnette said. “So a $3,000 tax lien, if nothing else is going to get their attention or they’re going to lose their property because they can’t pay the $3,000 in 18 months. At least we’re 18 months away from where we’re headed in the right direction, rather than just leaving things as they are. It takes teeth to make sure something gets done.
Another option is to get a court order to hire an exterminator to treat the house or set traps or rat poison and put those costs on a tax lien.
The board took no action during the meeting. They agreed to have Miller review the county ordinance and put it in place for the city, then they can take care of the problem.
Barnette said it was important to “get the wheels rolling” before the problem got worse.