Health, safety complaints rise with foreclosures

Health, safety complaints rise with foreclosures

August 17th, 2009 by Matt Wilson in News

Complaints about yard debris have doubled in the last year and a half or so as the number of foreclosures rises in Hamilton County, according to public health officials.

Bonnie Deakins, director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department's Environmental Services Division, said more and more people are simply dumping their belongings in the driveway or on the curb and leaving.

And that leaves health officials in a tough position.


Bonnie Deakins, director of the county Health Department's Environmental Services Division, said about 80 percent of complaints that come into the Health Department are resolved within 10 days. The remaining 20 percent or so is passed on to the county Health and Safety board. She said about three-quarters of those are resolved within 30 days. The rest can take months to clear up, she said.

"We'll call the bank that we have listed on the tax map or the property records, and they'll say, 'We sold that loan to such-and-such bank,'" Ms. Deakins said. "It might change hands 10 times. All the while, we're trying to locate a responsible party."

County officials have recorded 883 foreclosures in Hamilton County through Aug. 13.

Cleaning up abandoned properties can take months, Ms. Deakins said. Officials try to locate the owners who often have to hire contractors to do the cleanup. And some cases that don't involve foreclosures can drag on, she said, as people can't or won't clean up their property.

Earlier this month, officials from the health department and the county's Health and Safety Board came to the Hamilton County Commission asking for some help enforcing health standards.

According to the county's health and safety regulations, the county may fine property owners up to $49.99 per day for "the accumulation of discarded or worthless personal property" or excessive growth of grass, vines or underbrush.

Ms. Deakins said it is difficult to get some people, about 10 a year, to clean up their yards or pay their fines, however.

"The people who own those properties are usually physically disabled, they're mentally disabled or they're financially disabled," she said.

Ms. Deakins and other officials asked David Norton, an attorney in the county attorney's office, to look at revising the rules to make it easier to abate the problems.

Mr. Norton said the amendments are "a work in progress."

"Nothing unilateral will be done," he said.

One suggestion county commissioners put on the table was having the county hire workers to come clean up property and leave the owner with the bill and a lien on their property.

Commissioners Bill Hullander and Fred Skillern suggested that officials could give property owners some time to pay off the bill, but to go ahead and get the land cleaned up.

"I think we've got the teeth to do what we want to do. We've just got to enforce it," Mr. Hullander said.

Mr. Norton said the lien would be acted on in the same way the county would act on unpaid back taxes, which takes about three years before property is seized. County Mayor Claude Ramsey said commissioners should have an opportunity to determine whether to extend the process even further.

"That way you're not kicking the little widow out without some effort," he said.

Mr. Norton said he is still checking into whether it would be legal for county-hired workers to come onto private property to do such work.

Ms. Deakins said health officials have tried to reach out to some local groups who volunteer to clean up yards for older or disabled people, but in some cases it's been too unsafe for them to go in.