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City Owed $40 Million From Louisville Property Owners

vacant property
A rusty fence and tall weeds line the now vacant lot adjacent to the burgeoning Sheppard Square housing project.

The owners of vacant or abandoned properties in Louisville owe more than $40 million in unpaid property maintenance fines. That’s according to a recent report from the city’s Vacant and Public Property Administration.

The fines stem from property maintenance violations at the 7,400 such properties across the city.

Vacant and abandoned properties have longed plagued the city and the people who live near them. They're eyesores, they attract vermin, and they can paint a discouraging picture of the neighborhoods in which they stand.

Most of the fines are owed from property owners in Metro Council District 5 -- which includes much of northwestern Jefferson County. That district is home to more vacant or abandoned properties than any other council district, city data show.

Yet still, the issue is spread across the city. Vacant or abandoned properties exist in every Metro Council district. But city officials seem to be making progress in their quest to get rid of the properties, according to documents submitted to the Louisville Metro Council.

A report submitted ahead of this week's meeting of city agencies tasked with reining in vacant and abandoned properties shows there are fewer such properties in Louisville today than months prior.

For instance, in June 2015 there were nearly 8,200 vacant or abandoned property cases in the city. And the owners of those properties owed more than $42 million in fines.

These days, there are about 800 fewer properties. And owners owe about $2 million less.

So, how'd it happen? How are city officials tamping down the problem that perplexes neighbors and neighborhoods?

It's not clear.

Will Ford, a spokesman for Develop Louisville, the city agency that oversees vacant and public property, did not respond to a request for comment on how this success is unfolding.

But past interviews with city officials who focus on this issue could shed some light.

In a 2015 interview to discuss the mountain of unpaid fines, Jeana Dunlap -- the former head of the Vacant and Public Property Administration -- said city officials were ramping up their focus on collecting fines.

At the time, she said an entire division was tasked with the sole purpose of collecting fines. The goal is to collect about $2.7 million each year.

LouieStat -- the city's data tracking system-- shows the agency nearly reached that goal last year, when $2.6 million was collected, according to a June 2016 LouieStat report.

City officials surpassed the $225,000 goal set in the first month of the current fiscal year, according to data from LouieStat.

However, in 2015, Dunlap said that collected fines was not the agencies sole focus. In fact, she'd rather see blighted properties fixed up and brought into compliance with the city's property maintenance code.

Another preferred avenue, she said, would be for the city to gain control of abandoned sites.

Many fines will turn into liens if they go unpaid for some time. If a property owner fails to settle a lien, the city can file a lawsuit.

The lawsuit runs its course and the property eventually lands in the Master Commissioner’s Auction and is bid on, Dunlap said.

“More often than not, we are in the position of winning the bid,” she said.

Once Metro Government takes ownership of the property, all liens are “wiped clean” and it goes into the city’s land bank, where officials can dictate where the property goes next and what it becomes, Dunlap said.

In July 2017, 14 properties were acquired by the city's Landbank Authority, according to the LouieStat report. In all, the authority holds hundreds of properties -- some of which can be bought by residents.

Still, Dunlap admitted that a $40 million addition to the city's coffers would be a boon.

Jacob Ryan is an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.