Monroe County said it wouldn’t repay towns for demolishing zombie homes. The towns sued
Updated 11/9/2017: The Democrat & Chronicle published an article titled Towns win suit against Monroe County over zombie home cleanup fees.
April 28, 2017
The towns of Brighton and Irondequoit are taking Monroe County to court over unpaid property clean-up costs for mowing unkempt lawns, performing property maintenance and even tearing down vacant, abandoned buildings.
At issue is a county directive issued earlier this year saying that it would no longer reimburse towns for those fees, which are typically added to the town’s portion of a property’s tax bill. Previously, even when property owners failed to pay their taxes and added-on fees, Monroe County would nonetheless make towns whole for their full tax levy.
The county notified municipalities in late December that it was changing its longstanding practice — and applying the changes retroactively to maintenance done in 2016 — sparking outcry from other government officials.
“While this is an important issue for Brighton and Irondequoit, it really is an issue for all the towns,” said Brighton Supervisor Bill Moehle. “We believe the county’s move is illegal, and what it does is prevent Brighton and Irondequoit and the other towns from effectively handling those properties that need maintenance or in extreme cases, demolition.”
The unpaid fees are substantial in some communities: Irondequoit incurred more than $250,000 in property clean-up charges in 2016, Greece incurred more than $83,000, Gates incurred more than $77,000 and Hamlin more than $66,000.
On Thursday Brighton and Irondequoit filed an Article 78 proceeding in state Supreme Court, asking that the court order the county to keep making the payments.
According to the suit, “the county’s position ignores its mandatory statutory obligations, and disregards over 80 years of New York State case law, administrative opinions and the plain language of the New York Real Property Tax Law and Monroe County Code.”
Monroe County spokesman Brett Walsh said the county has not yet seen the towns’ filings.
“While the county does not respond to pending litigation, in this case it is impossible given the fact that it is not in receipt of the purported lawsuit,” he said. “We are confident that the courts and the public will see that the county meets its obligations to our municipal partners. This suit by two towns attempts to force residents in other towns throughout this county to subsidize their town budgets.”
Moehle said he is still hopeful an agreement can be hammered out before the case is heard in court. He said the “illegal” policy runs counter to taxpayer support for shared government services and cost-cutting measures.
“Under this, instead of having just the county doing all tax enforcement, this would require every municipality to take action to enforce these fees themselves,” he said. “That means each municipality having to hire lawyers and getting their own liens enforced.
“This is not just bad law, it is bad government policy.”
Irondequoit Supervisor David Seeley said the biggest concern is that the county’s move will hobble efforts by his and other towns to address ongoing problems with deteriorating vacant homes or unkempt properties.
“People bring up the dollars and cents of this, but I’m more worried about enforcement,’ he said. “If we have no recourse in enforcing these charges, what leverage do we all have in making our homeowners pay them? This leaves us all powerless to enforce town code.”
Seeley said the court action was a last resort.
“I would love to work with the county on this crisis of dealing with zombie homes,” he said. “I’ve seen it elsewhere in upstate where you have counties and towns working together to take on these zombie homes, and I feel like what Monroe County is doing here is just making it harder for us to deal with this.”
A court date has not yet been set to hear the case.
Source: Democrat & chronicle (full article)