The Mobile City Council voted unanimously Tuesday morning to support a bill that would make it easier for the city to act on blighted and “truly abandoned” property.
Last year, the city passed an ordinance allowing code enforcement officials more leeway when it came to forcing owners to act on a blighted structure, or property. Jeff Carter, executive director of the city’s Bloomberg Innovation Team, said officials can now place a pink notice on properties to notify owners they have 20 days to fix an issue. If the owner does not comply with the notice within 20 days, Carter said the city will fix the issue and place a lien on the property.
Carter said the vast majority of owners will get the notice and fix the issue before the city has to come in. In some cases, though, the structures, or properties are truly abandoned with no decisionmaker on site, Carter said.
In these cases, where the property is “truly abandoned,” Carter said getting the site into “productive use” is challenging. In order to get productive use out of these properties, Carter said the city goes through a process called an “expedited quiet title.” That process can take a number of years, he said. The city must first wait for the property to become tax delinquent for three years. Once that occurs and a new owner pays all the delinquent taxes, it can still take one to four years to clear the title.
House Bill 430, introduced by state Rep. Barbara Drummond [D-Mobile] right before the legislature’s spring break, would dramatically speed up the process. The bill, Carter said, would allow the city to take the municipal lien to a judge and ask for the property, to be sold at auction for a minimum bid, which would include the lien and taxes.
The bill would not allow any owner-occupied property to be sold like this and the due process has to have been met on all properties subject to the bill, Carter said. The bill, if approved by the legislature, would reduce the time it takes to move these types of properties to six to nine months.
“It’s efficient, it’s effective and it’s equitable,” Carter said. “We’re hopeful for this.”
The bill would affect “a couple hundred properties,” he said.
The proposal only applies to Class 2 municipalities, which means it would only impact Mobile.
In other business, the council heard from acting Chief of Staff Paul Wesch that the city’s debt position, while improving, was still not where it needed to be. The debt was as high as $313 million a “few years ago” and has been decreased by $55 million over the last three years without any additional debt being added.
Wesch told councilors the debt would have to be reduced to the $200 million range for the city’s credit rating to be further improved, according to a number of rating services. On a side note, Wesch said that if the city’s debt was zero, there’d be an additional $27 million per year in the budget.
The city also has about $20 million in reserves, which is about a month’s worth of operating expenses. The city has roughly an 8 percent reserve, which is still lower than it needs to be, Wesch said. For comparison, Wesch said the county has a 26 percent reserve and Huntsville has an 11 percent reserve.
Spurred by a question from Councilman Joel Daves, Wesch said the city’s Police and Firefighters’ Pension fund was 64 percent funded, which is considerably better than where it was in the late 1990s when a 30-year amortization plan was agreed upon. However, the fund still represents roughly $130 million in unfunded liability, according to Wesch. That unfunded liability as well as from other similar retirement accounts was not considered in the debt position numbers presented to the council.
The council also approved rezoning from residential to commercial to allow an 8-unit shopping center at the intersection of Old Shell Road and Long Street. Because of space limitations, the center won’t be allowed to house any food or beverage establishments.