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Abandoned properties cause concern, complaints in St. Peters

St. Peters Mayor Len Pagano said that “shaming” banks or individuals may be the only alternative the city has in dealing with abandoned houses that are falling apart and prompting complaints from neighbors.

The city’s Board of Aldermen went public with their complaints at its May 28 work session about the stumbling blocks in its way involving seven vacant properties within the city. Pagano said he has asked for help from the Missouri General Assembly for cities dealing with often crumbling houses.

“Our legislators could give us the right to bulldoze some these down,” Pagano said.

Existing laws limit a city’s ability to deal with properties that aren’t being maintained or have not been occupied for a long period of time, yet alderman and city officials have been criticized for not doing enough – a practice that Pagano said is unfair. City officials and aldermen are trying to deal with the properties, he said, but have found their hands tied.

“As long as taxes are paid on it (a property), it’s not abandoned,” Pagano said. “That’s one of the craziest things I’ve heard in my life. If you pay the taxes in the city on something and let it go to pot there is nothing you can do.”

Pagano said his idea is to post a sign in front of the properties identifying the banks or financial institutions who own them to shame them. But identifying the owner of properties is at the heart of the problem.

Russ Batzel, the city’s director of transportation and development services, told aldermen that the city has been trying to deal with the seven properties, some for five or six years. He said finding the real owner would allow the city to take stronger legal action.

Batzel said that when the city wants to send a letter to the owners of the property, they often find that the people who are registered as owners really no longer own the property. He said banks or other institutions that own those properties refuse to change the registration but do provide a post office box where tax bills are sent. A third party company, often in Texas or California, pays the bill and the property is kept off the books of the bank or company that really owns them.

Batzel and City Administrator Bill Charnisky said the city can address health and safety issues such as the presence of rats, swimming pools, high grass or structural integrity, but cannot deal with “cosmetic issues.”

The city adds a lien for grass cutting to on the property’s tax bill to get repaid, but the city has limited authority to go onto private property, Charnisky said.

City officials are expected to ask local legislators once again to support some legislation to deal with the issue. But Charnisky said past efforts to get a legislative remedy to more easily identify owners and deal with them directly had been stymied because of lack of support from rural legislators. Outstate legislators say their residents fear that giving local governments more authority may prompt attempts to take down old barns or infringe on their property rights.

City Attorney Randy Weber said the city faces a number of “competing issues” in dealing with the homes. Much of the problem stems from the economic downturn particularly around 2008 and few banks or financial institutions took back the titles to foreclosed properties. Instead, they set up shell companies to hide their ownership of property, Weber said.

Weber questioned whether the city had enough money or perhaps the authority in some cases to use public money to purchase private property. Condemning property means essentially the city would buy it after a condemnation proceeding and then fix it up and sell it. He said he wasn’t sure the city would want to do that.

Many of the aldermen said they also were frustrated by complaints from neighboring residents. Alderman Judy Bateman (Ward 2) suggested that the state legislature should consider legislation that would only apply to urban areas.

Alderman Donald Aytes (Ward 4) pointed out another problem with the presumably abandoned properties, noting that one home has a hole in its back wall, an example of poor or non-existent maintenance by its owners.

“It’s become a squirrel house,” Aytes said.

Alderman Patrick Barclay (Ward 4) said because the city owns the rights-of-way along city streets, it could put up a sign such as Pagano suggested. But Barclay’s sign would include the names and telephone numbers of local legislators with the admonition to call them to “ask them to help us help you.”

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