Increase in vacant homes taxing city

PORTAGE: Code enforcement left to track down owners of unkempt yards
2009-07-26T00:00:00Z Increase in vacant homes taxing cityJoyce Russell - joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222 nwitimes.com

PORTAGE | In a quiet neighborhood in the center of the city, grass and weeds have taken over the backyard of a vacant home.

An orange envelope posted on the front door tells whomever is responsible for the house to mow the yard. The notice was posted June 2, but the weeds have overwhelmed the sidewalk and backyard barbecue.

It is a continuing and growing problem for the city, said Code Enforcement Officer John Siroky.

In May and June, Portage received 119 complaints of unkempt yards, double the complaints received during the same period last year. Most of the gripes are against properties abandoned by tenants or foreclosed upon by lenders, he said.

The city's property maintenance ordinance requires owners to maintain their yards. Once weeds and grass reach nine inches high, the owners are in violation and can be cited.

"The vast majority of the people notified have taken care of the violation. It really slows up the process if it is a vacant property," said Siroky, adding that tracking down whom is responsible often takes time.

In what appears to be an indication of the dour economy, the city is dealing with twice as many vacant properties this summer as usual, Siroky said.

The city must make efforts to find the person or business responsible for an unkempt property, cite them and post a notice at the property. Owners are given five days to mow. If they don't, Siroky said, a city a street department crew is dispatched to mow.

The property owner is billed, usually in an amount of $400 to $1,000. If the city can't collect, a lien is placed on the property.

The increased volume taxes the code enforcement department, which is staffed by Siroky and one part-time officer, who must check and verify the status of each property. And it puts a strain on the street department, which must schedule the mowing between other assignments.

Siroky said his department also is seeing a spike in violations regarding the posting of garage sale signs -- likely another sign of difficult economic times. The city prohibits the signs from being posted on utility poles or in public easements.

"There have been a lot of moving sales, a lot more garage sales," he said. "This has been a more hectic season than normal, which has caused delays. There's simply been more things to do. We are trying our best to address them (violations) as quickly as possible."

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