Sunday, January 11, 2004

Covington may add 'blight' tax


Higher rate would aim at unsightly properties

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - This city soon hopes to add a weapon in the fight against unsightly properties.

State Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, plans to introduce legislation next week that would let Covington officials tax owners of blighted and abandoned properties at a higher rate than others. By hitting offenders in the wallets and pocketbooks, the theory is that they'll either fix up their property or sell it.

"For some people, their pocketbook is all they respond to,'' said Mildred Rains, Covington's code enforcement director. "They don't care about their community.''

Simpson wants to extend protections now offered only to Louisville - Kentucky's largest city - to smaller urban areas such as Covington and Newport.

"We were aware that Louisville was doing something like this and thought it should be extended to (smaller) cities too,'' said Covington Mayor Butch Callery. "It fits in with our goals to clean up blighted housing and make our neighborhoods safe.''

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Covington has 654 vacant properties. Rains said run-down, abandoned buildings serve as havens for criminals, lower property values and prompt neighbors to move elsewhere.

"I call it the broken-window theory,'' Callery said. "You have one bad property, then people in the neighborhood get frustrated and start selling their homes. We don't want good people leaving the city.''

Covington City Solicitor Jay Fossett said the change would help Covington in two ways:

"Through this, we could charge a higher tax rate to penalize those people who allow their properties to sit idle and become deteriorated,'' Fossett said. "Secondly, when we do a foreclosure, we'd recover more money because the property is being taxed at a higher rate.''

Currently, some blighted and abandoned properties aren't worth going after, Covington officials said, because so little is recovered at the lower tax rate when one takes into account attorney and filing fees.

Covington's vacant properties commission now sends letters to owners of rundown properties giving them 90 days to fix the problems. If an owner fails to act, the properties are sent to the city commission for certification and added to a vacant properties list. At that point, a run-down property could be taxed at a higher rate, if Simpson's proposal becomes law, Fossett said.

Mayor Tom Guidugli said he supports Simpson's proposal.

The proposed change is the latest in a series of actions that Covington officials have taken against criminal activity and blighted property.

In September 2001, the city formed a code enforcement department and code enforcement board to hear cases involving blighted properties and to fine offenders.

Other changes include putting a full-time housing inspector in the police department, changing traffic patterns on some city streets to stop drug trafficking, sending "Dear John'' letters to homes of men who solicit prostitutes, and adopting strict new licensing regulations for massage parlors to deter prostitution and other illegal activities.

Last spring, Covington City Commission approved an updated 26-page nuisance code that includes a "two strikes and you're out'' proposal. Residents who engage in drug use, prostitution or outdoor gambling two or more times in a 12-month period could be forced to leave their apartments or homes. And landlords who don't evict criminal offenders before a second offense happens or another search warrant is issued can find occupational licenses revoked or utilities shut off at the offending apartments.

E-mail cschroeder@enquirer.com




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