By Dave Taylor
While the city of Hawesville and Hancock County have spent years discussing what to do about blighted properties and trash-filled yards, just across the river in Cannelton, Ind., that city has been making progress on those very same problems and could serve as an example for its Kentucky neighbors.
Cannelton has torn down several dilapidated buildings in recent years, changing its reputation from a city that had been neglected to one that’s choosing to improve itself, and it’s just been a matter of enforcing existing rules.
“Basically it’s more enforcement,” said Cannelton Mayor Ralph Terry, who took office in January. “If I see something I tackle it head on. I don’t pass it on. I don’t wait for a complaint.”
The city has ordinances dealing with trash and yard maintenance, plus a whole section of building codes that regulate structures. The building codes are enforced by a building inspector, but the others dealing with general appearance are enforced through a process that begins with a complaint, quickly moves on to fines, and just as quickly moves on to remediation.
Something as simple as trash pickup is regulated and the rules are enforced to ensure that garbage doesn’t spread and hurt the appearance of properties, and that’s monitored by the employees of the city-run garbage pickup and enforced by the street commissioner who heads it up.
“(Trash) cannot be loose,” Terry said. “Every person will get fined if they just throw it in a barrel because it gets strung from the barrel to the truck or the compactor, so therefore it has to be in a bag. And anything outside the bag we do not pick up.”
All properties are required to have trash service, and the workers will only take up to four bags. More than that will lead to a charge on the monthly utility bill for water and electric.
If a resident lets trash spill out on the yard and doesn’t pick it up, the city will send them a courtesy letter giving them a certain amount of time before fines are levied.
“You’ve got so many days to comply and get it cleaned up and then the next letter’s like a $20 fine,” he said.
They have similar rules for lawns too, which not only includes letting grass get too high, but also includes blowing clippings out into the street.
“If they don’t discharge the grass out of their lawnmower into their yard and they just discharge it out into the street then also that’s a $25 fine,” he said. “Some of them don’t realize what they’re doing and don’t care and they just do it, or maybe their kid did it but it don’t matter. Grandpa or whoever has got to get out there and get it cleaned up,” he said.
If the street commissioner sees a property that’s violating the trash ordinance he will alert the city clerk, who sends out a notice to the offending address.
“Then that address person has to come to the clerk’s office and explain what’s going on, why their trash is laying all over the place and then they get a better understanding of what they cannot do,” Terry said.
For problems with abandoned or deteriorating structures, the city has a building inspector, who is an existing city employee who took on the extra title.
“The building inspector here is appointed by the mayor and it so happens that he’s also the utilities manager,” he said. That meant less expense than having to hire a whole other person to enforce the building codes. “The building inspector’s not a created job that we’ll hire somebody full-time, but usually within our departments that they get paid extra so much money a year to be that person,” he said.
That inspector and the building codes have been used to force the cleanup of some properties in recent years, and has led to the demolition of several structures. “Usually in order for a house to be torn down, the city acquired it,” Terry said.
On those properties the city either buys them at tax sales or takes them through a legal process after placing liens on the property for work the city has done to clean them up.
“Once we acquire the property, then we have to pay to have someone like GN or somebody to come in and demolish the house and haul it off,” he said. “Then we end up with an empty lot and we try to put that lot back up for sale for what the cost was to clean that up.”
Those costs can be prohibitive though, he said, and can leave some structures needing to be repaired or cleaned up but with no one wanting to take on a money pit.
“It costs you out the butt for litigation and lawyers fees,” he said. “That’s a fine line there because that is something that you cannot force a lot of people and take everybody to court.”
“There’s a lot of people you’d like to deem as abandoned or condemned housing, but according to our state laws, when you do that… if they don’t take care of it and clean it up then you have to, and now you’re out the expense,” he said. “So we’re very careful about condemning property.”
And some properties, like the one at the corner of Taylor Street and IN-66 where a house was demolished last year, look better after the demolition but the city isn’t always better off in the long run.
Terry gave the example of a lot where the city might have spent $7,000 to remove a house. That bare property has a lower value than it did with a structure on it, so the city loses out on property tax revenue from then on.
“Sometimes it’s best to sell the bare land less expensive for someone to build on,” he said. “It’s almost like I’d almost give you the property if you guarantee me within a year you’ll have a house of our expectations sitting on it.”
Cannelton still has blighted properties and problematic owners, Terry said, but they’ve made progress and will continue to do what they can.
“We’re not perfect here,” he said. We have the same situations going on.”
“It’s always got to do with following up and respecting the person but also in a way that they know they have to be in compliance no matter if they live on a 500-acre farm or if they live on a one-acre farm or one house somewhere,” he said. “It’s got to do with putting a little bit of pride beside you and do what’s right for the community.”