City taking notice of poorly maintained properties

The city of Merrill is taking notice of residential and commercial properties that are in need of exterior maintenance and repairs. The purpose of the city’s exterior maintenance program is to investigate properties that appear to not be safe, sanitary or need maintenance to the buildings, yards or vacant areas.
The goal of the exterior code is to have a “community that retains property values and a community that is aesthetically pleasing to the people that live here and people who are considering coming here,” City Administrator David Johnson said. “It comes back to civic pride. We want a community you can be proud to live in.”
Exterior maintenance has been part of the city’s zoning and building code since the late 1960s.
Shortly after current Mayor Bill Bialecki took office as mayor, he asked that property maintenance efforts be stepped up.
“Blighted properties drag down the worth of the entire neighborhood,” Bialecki said.
In 2012, 171 property owners and 22 business owners were contacted about properties that needed care. Of those, 155 owners completed the required work, 3 have files currently with the building inspector for further action, 9 have been referred to the city attorney for court action, and 26 had their orders extended into 2013 for completion.
Properties that need attention are identified by city staff who drive around looking for violations. The city also responds to citizen complaints about specific properties. Exterior maintenance orders are usually triggered by peeling or chipping paint, missing siding, broken windows, or dilapidated accessory buildings and fences.
“A lot of times accessory buildings get overlooked,” Pagel said. “If they’re bad enough we ask that they be removed.”
When property owners receive notice from the city, they are given a time frame to comply. For the cleanup of garbage or debris, they get 10 days. At rental properties, both the owner and the tenant can receive fines for garbage accumulation.
For maintenance work like painting, the owners typically get three to four months. During the winter that time frame is extended to allow them to complete the work during warmer weather.
“The orders we’re issuing now are not due until July,” said city property inspector Shari Wicke. “We are definitely willing to work with people.”
If the work isn’t completed by the due date, the property owner gets a final letter and one more month to comply. If there’s still no action, the citation process begins and the matter is referred to the city attorney. If the work is completed during that grace period, the owner typically receives a $189.60 fine.
For those that still haven’t made an effort to comply, the fines stack up fast and can reach thousands of dollars, depending on how long the property owner has been ignoring the orders.
The vast majority of orders never make it to court as the owners rectify the problem within the allotted time, Wicke said.
A relatively small number of property owners account for a disproportionately large number of orders, Bialecki noted.
“We deal with a lot of the same people over and over again,” Wicke added.
Failure to make the requested repairs can ultimately result in condemnation of the property, if the condition is determined to be severe enough. Condemnation is a last resort, Pagel said.
“If people refuse to fix something and the building is in very bad condition then we don’t have any alternative,” said zoning administrator Darin Pagel. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is get it corrected. We’re not out to make all these vacant lots.”
The city does have Community Development funds available to make improvements to blighted properties. There is a waiting list of about a year to receive funding. None of the property owners currently on the waiting list have city orders on their properties.
Property complaints can be made by visiting the City of Merrill web site and clicking on “Report a Property Problem” on the home page. An interior and exterior check list is provided for the use of both property owners and renters. This list indicates what issues the city can, and will, address through the enforcement of existing city ordinances and state statutes.

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