Mowing of vacant lots a growing problem
Officials are trying to trim list of properties city has to maintain
DANVILLE — The number one complaint Alderman Rickey Williams Jr. gets this time of year in regard to the city — grass.
The Ward 1 alderman said he regularly gets calls about unmowed lawns and unmowed vacant lots, and he would like the city to increase its auxiliary crew dedicated to mowing lawns of foreclosed, vacant or abandoned properties and vacant lots.
The list of properties the city mows, in addition to city-owned properties like parks, is just over 400.
Williams has pushed at recent council meetings for the city to consider adding auxiliary workers to this task. Mayor Scott Eisenhauer and Ahrens said it's a budget issue that would require taking money from somewhere else and putting it toward the hiring of more seasonal workers.
Ahrens said it would cost $42,000 to add another three-person crew to mow lots, plus $5,000 to purchase more mowers, weed trimmers and other equipment, and that does not include a tractor and mower for bigger lots.
Williams said the city administration always finds money for other special projects, like beautification of downtown, so it needs to take care of citizens who take care of their properties but live near overgrown lots.
He said it's discouraging to them, and he doesn't want to see them give up and leave a neighborhood as a result.
Eisenhauer said he plans to bring a recommendation to address this issue to the city council meeting Tuesday but did not provide any details.
Ahrens said the city has been trying to cut down its mowing list this year.
With the recent city reorganization, city inspectors were moved into the public works department where solid waste and other public works personnel who are on city streets daily can coordinate with inspectors on various code issues. Ahrens said city inspectors are reviewing the mowing list to evaluate what the city should and should not be mowing and if there are properties that can be removed. They've discovered that some of the banks and lenders in control of foreclosures have someone servicing properties, so they can take over the mowing.
But even though they're trimming the list, it's a challenge for the city to keep up.
"It's been a difficult year this year," Ahrens said. "It's been a great growing season with all the rain."
In a 35-week growing season, he said, a typical resident would mow a lawn weekly until about July.
But mowing 400 properties weekly is not possible with the limited city personnel dedicated to mowing.
Tracy Craft is in charge of the three full-time auxiliary workers dedicated to mowing these types of properties. They take care of the 210 lots on the list that can be mowed with tractors; an additional 194 require push mowing, Craft said. Those are handled by a Vermilion County probationary work crew, which has a county employee who supervises it in addition to Craft coordinating its work. Other city employees handle mowing of all the city-owned property like parks and rights-of-ways.
Craft said it takes two and a half weeks to get through the list of tractor properties and three and a half to get through the push-mowing list.
Ahrens said the probationary work crew is free to the city except for equipment.
"They have been a savior on many of these properties. It saves a fortune," he said.
The city's goal, Ahrens said, is to mow the more than 300 lots five or six times in the year, and so far this year, the crews have been through the list twice.
He said properties get on the list when it comes to the city's attention that a property, whether a vacant lot or one with a structure, is not being mowed and an owner cannot be identified or is not providing for the mowing of the property for whatever reason.
The properties may be foreclosures, abandoned properties or vacant lots where the city demolished a structure. Ahrens said the city typically does not take ownership of lots where it demolishes a house, but will mow them, and will go through further legal proceedings to gain ownership, but only if neighbors wants the properties.
Ahrens said there are neighbors who voluntarily mow vacant lots.
"Certainly we need and appreciate all the assistance of neighbors we can get," said Ahrens, adding that it helps even if neighbors can mow properties in between the city's mowings rather than taking over permanently.
Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said the city administration's frustration is the fact that in some cases people or entities own the lots but don't take care of them, so it falls on the city. He said the city files liens against the properties to recoup its mowing costs, but that doesn't always work, especially when there is no owner to be found.
The city has considered other ways to recoup costs, including a state debt recovery program that the city signed up for last fall. The Illinois comptroller's office allows municipalities to recover outstanding debts by diverting any money the state might be sending the debtors, such as state income tax refunds. David Wesner, corporate counsel for Danville, said the city is not limited as to what kind of debts could be recovered through the program.
Eisenhauer said there's another state law that would allow the city to place the mowing costs as a fee on the property owners' property tax bills, which would require Vermilion County offices to do the work to put them on the bills. Eisenhauer said the county declined the city's requests, which were prior to 2013.
In the meantime, Ahrens said, city inspectors keep whittling away at the list, trying to determine whether there's someone who will take responsibility or someone who wants to take over the lots. He said that takes time.
"It's a cumbersome process as the grass is growing," he said.