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Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011 02:51 pm

City sues property owner to recover weed-mowing debts

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After years of unpaid bills, Springfield has sued the city’s biggest violator of a requirement that landowners keep grass mowed and weeds in check.

Turner Properties and Discount Inn Retirement Plan, Inc., which share an address in Skokie, together own at least 54 Springfield properties, most apparently vacant. Both entities began racking up fines for tall weeds and grass almost as soon as they acquired the land in 2006 and 2007 via quit-claim deeds from Sangamon County, which had ended up with the lots in 2004 after property taxes went unpaid.

The bill for city cleanup services – mostly for mowing and cutting down weeds – now surpasses $98,000, and the city is foreclosing. No one from the Skokie entities could be reached for comment.

“When we get to that amount of money, we are not going to let that continue,” says corporation counsel Mark Cullen. “That probably is a change.”

Aside from two small-claims cases – one filed in 2008, the other in 2010 – the city until now had not gone after Turner Properties or Discount Inn in court. Combined, the city sought less than $1,000 in those two previous cases and has received nothing to date.

Now, the city is demanding the total amount owed in a pair of foreclosure lawsuits filed Sept. 2. It’s a new strategy for a city that had previously taken a piecemeal approach instead of consolidating violations – when it went to court at all, says city treasurer Jim Langfelder, whose office bills property owners for mowing done at public expense.

“Previously, corporation counsel would never proceed with grass or weeds in court,” Langfelder says. “Anytime we take a violator to court, we should see what they owe the city and take all of the violations and proceed with everything. … I am glad that the new corporation counsel has taken an interest in the case.”

The city wants a judgment, then a land auction to satisfy the debt, Cullen says. If no one bids on the property, the city would become owner.

The 27 parcels owned by Discount Inn Retirement Plan alone are worth nearly $93,000, according to county property records, but whether anyone would pay that much is questionable. Property taxes went unpaid last year and again this year, according to records in the county supervisor of assessments office.

Cullen said that the city is prepared to acquire the deeds.

“We’re already doing the basic maintenance work, anyway,” Cullen said.

In addition to suing the Skokie entities, the city last month filed 13 lawsuits aimed at obtaining demolition orders for buildings with code violations. It will take between three and six months to get demolition orders, Cullen said, and as much as 18 months to foreclose if the city does the work and property owners don’t pay.

“It’s the same message: We are really tired of these properties sitting around,” Cullen said. “We have made a renewed commitment to get out there and get the process moving and demo these houses.”

In the year ending Aug. 1, the city demolished 27 buildings, according to city spokesman Ernie Slottag. Mark Mahoney, city public works director, said that he has 17 homes on his demolition list and expects to start tearing houses down in December.

By contrast, Peoria, which has about the same population as Springfield, averages 55 demolitions a year at a cost of as much as $400,000, says John Kunski, director of inspections in Peoria’s building inspection department. The number could go as high as 100 this year, he said.

Springfield may soon catch up.

“I can easily see that we would be in the range of five to 10 each month,” Cullen said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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