Owning a decrepit house in unincorporated Bibb County soon could get more expensive.
The county is looking into a so-called “blight tax,” which would drastically increase the property taxes on blighted properties across the county. Some blight taxes turn into a redevelopment credit, which allows property owners who fix up their land or replace the buildings to get a tax break.
Bibb County Chief Administrative Officer Steve Layson said the blight tax would tell neglectful property owners, “‘Your taxes are going up fourfold.’ That may force the property owner to do something with the property, or they may pay higher property taxes for two-three years and then decide to do something with it.”
Bibb County has been pursuing other approaches as well, launching a new nuisance ordinance and tearing down homes that caught fire years ago. The blight tax would fit into those efforts, but Georgia cities that pioneered the blight tax say they don’t use it very much.
The city of Darien has cleaned up more than 10 percent of its homes by simply enforcing the existing building codes, said Community Development Director Frank Feild. A largely cooperative approach with property owners has improved about 100 homes in the city of 1,700. Darien may have been the first community to implement a blight tax.
“That particular ordinance we thought was going to be a powerful tool to clean up some long-standing problems, but the reality is if you go in and enforce your existing codes fairly and strongly, you’ll do a better job than any ordinance,” Feild said.
And when Darien gets properties cleaned up, it’s been at the property owner’s expense. The city has to pay staff to oversee the process.
The blight tax also is taking a back seat in Albany, where Code Enforcement Director Mike Tilson had a budget of $150,000 for tearing down homes — and just received another $583,000 to help with the demolition effort. Tilson said the city is ramping up to tear down as many as 20 houses a month. It’s trying to use the blight tax on three commercial properties.
“I see it as a last resort,” Tilson said. “The blight tax will be handy for commercial buildings.”
The blight tax will be applied in Albany to the former Pritchett Ford, a 1950s car dealership right on a main downtown street. Albany’s blight tax triples just the city’s share of the overall tax bill, which this year was about $12,200. If the blight tax were applied in time for this year’s tax bill, it would have added about $5,600, Telegraph calculations show.
“There’s a for-sale sign outside this building, and we are just hoping this encourages the owner to work hard at redeveloping this building,” Tilson said.
Demolition of such a commercial property would be too costly, Tilson said. The city is averaging about $5,200 to demolish a house.
As in Bibb County, Albany is applying liens, which prevent the properties from being sold before the government gets its demolition money back. Tilson sees that as a long-term solution. In the short term, just two liens have been paid back. Albany also recently added a new clerical position to the city attorney’s office to help process the demolition paperwork.
Tilson and Feild say the different approaches used in their cities are working, because blighted properties are getting cleaned up or torn down.
Bibb County is refocusing code enforcement and demolition efforts. One target: The former Pleasant Grove School, a pair of 1950s-era structures with broken windows, crumbling roofs and a lock that was knocked off.
Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen said the former school is an eyesore that harms the neighborhood around it, including two churches that face it. The school will soon wind up in court after two, 30-day notices to fix or tear down the school, Allen said.
LaTonya Vaxter bought the Knoxville Road school five years ago and said she wanted to renovate it into a school and senior center. But she got in over her head and said she didn’t realize it would take about $1 million to renovate the property.
She said she’s trying to sell it to someone for community use, but the potential buyer is struggling to line up the funding, including government grants.
Vaxter said the property deteriorated more after scrap metal prices went up and thieves struck. Someone even cut a hole in the roof so they could steal the building’s wiring, she said.
Layson said Bibb County will study which properties are blighted, then prioritize them for attention. But funding could be a problem. Layson has told county commissioners he’d need more money to tear down houses at a faster rate, even just three or four more each month. The county will have to spend between $9,000 and $15,000 to tear down a house, after landfill fees, asbestos removal, equipment costs and labor charges are factored in, Layson said.
Liens could recoup some of that money in time. But some of the blighted properties are in less-desirable neighborhoods where lots are cheap and demand is low, so they may not sell for years or bring much money. One house the county tore down this year sat on land assessed at $5,660; another was $6,760. Layson said the county may not always get what it invested in a cleanup effort, just as it spends money now to clean up trash from the sides of the road.
“You can clean up all you want,” Layson said, “but when your neighbor’s house is burned down, there’s no roof on it, there’s trees through it, that’s just not a pretty sight. It’s a health issue, too.”