The following is the first in a series of articles looking at efforts underway to clean up Fort Madison
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Fort Madison city officials are putting residents on notice – clean it up… or they will.
Fort Madison Building Director Doug Krogmeier has sent out more than 100 nuisance abatement notices to city residents to get their properties in order or the city will come out and do it and charge you for the time. The move falls on the heels of an effort last fall to get nuisance vehicles tucked away.
Fort Madison Mayor Matt Mohrfeld said he sent a signed letter along with the last batch of abatement letters sent from the city.
“We are not going to apologize for this,” Mohrfeld said.
“If anyone catches hell, I hope it’s me. City staff is quality people working hard and they shouldn’t shoulder this. I’m elected. I should.”
Mohrfeld said his letter indicated the city’s abatement compliance arm, led by Krogmeier, has the full support of the mayor and City Council. He said getting the city moving in the right direction isn’t going to be without emotion, but it has to start with the property owners.
“People want their property to look better. Nobody wakes up saying they want their house to look bad. Life just gets in the way,” the mayor said.
Even before being elected mayor, Mohrfeld was putting things in motion with beautification efforts around the city. As a councilman he supported the vehicle abatement process that resulted in residents getting untagged, non-functional, and non-enclosed vehicles off city streets and open properties.
Mohrfeld has also spearheaded committees and roundtables on how to bring the city’s curb appeal into focus. He said initially his thoughts were “prettying” up the town, but he said after digging into the problems, it’s more of a remediation process now.
“I started the process and thought of beautification as ‘getting pretty’,” Mohrfeld said. “But as I dug more into it, I realized we have to get into the remediation. I didn’t see the underbelly of this.”
The city got a first taste of that when city contractors went onto property owned by Barbara Lozano, who’s deceased, and began removing visible items after serving notice for vehicle abatement and accumulation of junk, according to Charles Lozano, her son.
Lozano confronted Krogmeier and tried to file a theft complaint with Fort Madison Police Captain Bruce Niggemeyer, according to a video provided to Pen City Current. Due to language on the video, Pen City Current will not be loading the video for viewing.
Lozano said the city contractors removed a detached porch swing and a sofa from the front porch, a box saw, and a glide transmission among other things, from the yard, porch, and carport.
The carport has a covered top but no sides to obscure the contents from the neighborhood. Lozano had previously removed an Airstream, a 1965 Oldsmobile, and a pickup truck per the abatement notice.
Lozano admitted the property wasn’t in his name, but said he had been taking care of it since his mother’s and father’s deaths. His mother died recently and Lozano said he is the executor of the estate.
“My parents both passed away and the property’s in my mom’s name, but both are willed to me and I’m executor of the will. So how they say they don’t legally belong to me I don’t know,” Lozano said Saturday.
He said no deed or transfer of the property had been executed as some legal snags had slowed the process.
The abatement notices were sent to the property in his parent’s name and someone who was living with him signed for the letter.
He said the city shouldn’t have a right to determine what items people keep on their private property.
“He’s allowed to tell me what kind of seating I have on my porch? He doesn’t get to decide what people have on their private property,” Lozano said.
Lozano said in addition to the items taken, the contractors also borrowed his trash cans and said they would return them, but he hasn’t been back to the property to check on the status of that. He also said he was belittled by police on scene when he tried to file a complaint of theft against the city for taking items off the property.
City Councilman Tyler Miller has been tasked by Mohrfeld with helping get an inventory of properties in the city that could be candidates for remediation.
Miller said he’s aware the situation is going to get emotional, but in the end the community’s going to have to get behind the efforts.
“He doesn’t own that property and it’s still up in the air as to who owns it,” Miller said.
“But there’s so many different variables that go into it. You start putting some pressure on some of these homeowners and some of this might take care of itself. Shine a light on it, get it out there and open it up.”
He said the recent effort to get abandoned vehicles put away in the city speaks to how appropriately and legally applied pressure can yield results.
Mohrfeld said eventually he hopes the city stands together to help make the city more appealing.
“Eventually I would like to see the day when the city stands shoulder-to-shoulder in some of this. But right now we’ve backed up and are looking at internal policies before we reach out,” he said.
“We’ve got to clean the house up, before we start remodeling.”
Mohrfeld said he rates the city’s appearance as a six, but he said that number isn’t what’s important.
“You can rate it four if you choose, but the important thing is that we reach for the five or the seven. We don’t slip back to a three,” he said.
The city will be discussing an abatement ordinance in a workshop Tuesday night following the regular City Council meeting. Mohrfeld said that’s a good first step in making people aware that the city is serious about getting structures and properties cleaned up.
“A lot of people don’t like a nudge from the outside, but when you buy in a municipality it’s bigger than yourself. Deep down should they understand that? I believe they should,” he said.
Lozano said he’s consulted with an attorney about the property taken from his parents’ residence. But he said he understands the city wanting to clean things up as he’s lived in Fort Madison most of his life.
“I can understand yard debris, refuse, trash. But it’s easy to see the difference between that and tools, machinery, and equipment that isn’t inoperable at all,” he said.
Mohrfeld said the city should try to present residents with options in resolving the issues privately.
“I think people should be presented with some options and we try to provide those. That’s important because some people are trapped by situations of life – short-term or long-term,” he said.
“But I absolutely hate that the city has to go in at our expense and clean up something that a private individual neglected. It drives me nuts… and we’re gonna crack some eggs.”