BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – In two weeks, city officials will meet with residents to talk about a proposed ordinance that would require all vacant properties to be registered with the city.
The move, spearheaded by City Building Director Doug Krogmeier, will give the city a list of properties that are sitting idle or vacant within the city limits.
Property owners would also be charged a fee as part of the registration process, based on the size of the building and the time it’s been sitting vacant.
A meeting has been set for Sept. 16 at 5:30 p.m. at the Fort Madison Public Library’s Sheaffer Room.
Krogmeier said he hopes to get some questions answered while providing residents with the workings of the ordinance, which is still a work in progress.
He said aside from the fee structure, there are also some aspects, such as requiring insurance on the properties that are still up for discussion.
“We do have a fee structure, but I’m not confirming that anything is set in stone,” Krogmeier said Monday afternoon.
“The mayor and I worked on it and he wanted to push it up a bit,” Krogmeier said. “It needs to be there, but were gonna get a lot of kick back on it. And you have to justify the program.”
Fire Chief Joey Herren said the fee structure has to be set so that it has an impact on property owners who let structures fall into disrepair.
“It has to have some teeth to it to make it work,” he said.
City Manager David Varley said the fee has to be reasonable to keep people engaged in the program.
The proposed annual fee structure would start at $10 for smaller accessory buildings up to $250 for larger buildings. The fees double the third year they are registered in the program, and then double again the fourth year.
There could also be fees for non-compliance with the registry.
The owner of any building that has become vacant has 90 days after the vacancy occurs ,or within 30 days of assuming ownership, whichever is later, to register the property with the city.
Properties that are undergoing active renovations would be exempt. Properties that are part of an estate would get a 12-month waiver and properties that are actively for sale would get a six month waiver. Snow bird properties can be listed at no cost. Buildings that have suffered substantial damage would get a 90-day exemption.
Krogmeier said there are currently between 300 and 500 properties within the city limits that would meet criteria to be registered. He showed 50 properties to the City Council in June that need urgent attention.
“Those 50 we showed are the ones we’re gonna have to deal with no matter what. This program isn’t going to fix that, it’s meant to slow it down,” he said.
Varley said the program is part of the city’s effort to clean up it’s image and will help stem to the pattern of properties sitting idle and becoming nuisances.
In the past year about eight vacant properties have burned due to squatters or other problems associated with what Herren called “absentee ownership”.
“Four of those we paid to get cleaned up recently. One lady cleaned up her own, but we don’t get that very often,” Herren said.
Herren said residents need to know that right now the taxpayers are shouldering the burden of cleaning up those properties that need mitigation, such as the $80,000 that was spent out of the city’s general fund to clean up the abandoned building that was razed in 2016 in the 1100 block of Avenue H.
Registrations would include a description, address, legal description, names, addresses and contact information for all owners and authorized agents, including mortgage lender account representative contact information, and all liens holders.
If owners live outside of Des Moines, Henry, Lee or Van Buren counties, a contact person designated to act on behalf of the owner would be included in the registration.
Registrations would also be required to include a plan of action for the bulding, which will be approved by the a city building official. Plans have three options including demolition plans, plans to ensure security and maintenance, or rehabilitation plans.
An initial property inspection would take place within 12 months, with an annual inspection in following years.
Registration would also include an authorization appointing the Fort Madison Police Department as an agent of the owner to allow police to remove trespassers.
Krogmeier said one issue that is still being debated is whether or not to require insurance. Krogmeier said insurance could be a deal breaker for some as the amount of insurance polices could run people from the program.
“We’ve got these kind of buildings they aren’t going to be cheap just to insure. Even if they can get insurance on them. It has to qualify for what we want. But people will walk away from the program if they have to pay $500 to $900 in insurance.”
Herren said the insurance would give the city money to demolish the property if it catches fire or falls down. He said most policies hold demolition money back for the city and then release the rest to the owner after the city confirms the building has been cleaned up.
Krogmeier said if the ordinance works properly, property owners would be required to keep the property at minimum standards which could eliminate the need for the insurance.
“We’re kind of doubling down there,” he said.
“If they’re in the program and they bring it up to minimum standards, meaning windows are in place and not boarded up, doors are locked and secured, and someone’s checking on the property and maintaining it, we may not need the insurance because nobody’s getting in it routinely.”
Herren said people would be surprised at the number of homeless people in Fort Madison who move around squatting in properties. He said those people typically strip wiring in the structures and sell the copper and then move on.
“Those homes have absolutely no value after those people get ahold of them,” Krogmeier said.
He said the ordinance would help the city catch up on dilapidated, vacant buildings and could improve a lot of properties making them inhabitable again.
“They’re gonna have to get things cleaned up a bit anyway, so maybe some of these owners can get it to the point where they could rent it again. That’s really the goal here.”