Washington County looking to recoup cleanup costs

Robert Houk • Nov 14, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Washington County officials are looking for a better way to recoup the costs of cleaning up private property found to be in violation of environmental or zoning codes.

Members of the county’s Budget Committee voted Wednesday to consider a new process of seeking reimbursement for such court-ordered cleanups. Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said the cost of those cleanups is increasing for the county, and it was time to look at attaching a bill for that work to the property owner’s tax statement.

Mitch Meredith, the county’s director of finance and administration, told the Budget Committee it has been a “big year” in the number of cleanups the county has undertaken for unkept property.

“I don’t know if it is a record,” Meredith said.

The committee agreed Wednesday to defer action on paying for cleanups in the Clyde Miller Drive and Big Bear Lane areas until it decides on a new recovery process. Currently, the county places a lien against the property to recover cleanup costs. That reimbursement, however, doesn’t come to the county until the property is sold.

Commissioner Jim Wheeler said it may take “two generations” before a family sells the property and settles the lien.

County Attorney Allyson Wilkinson said records from her predecessor show there have been $162,750 in liens placed on property in recent years to settle cleanup costs. Of that amount, just $61,228 has been recovered.

Wilkinson told committee members she is researching the legal issues involved in asking the county trustee to attach cleanup costs to property tax bills. She said such an authority is not directly defined under the trustee’s statutory duties.

“We want to set up process that can be maintained,” Wilkinson said. “A process that flows and is tenable.”

Grandy said most complaints of unkept property and zoning violations come from neighbors and adjacent property owners. He said many cases are heard in the environmental court before they get the county’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee. 

“Maybe we should have a process where we bring those cases to the HEW before they go the environmental court,” the mayor said, noting this would allow the county commissioner representing the district where the property is located to become involved.