City of Savannah works to collect $1.6 million in unpaid fines for blight

City of Savannah works to collect $1.6 million in unpaid blight tax

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Properties with a history of blight and their owners are now feeling the pinch as the City of Savannah works to collect outstanding fines.

About $1.6 million is owed to the city in fines assessed after the city paid contractors to clean up private properties.

For many of the 1,500 property owners affected, the city’s efforts to collect mean pay up or risk losing what they inherited.

“It’s not always a pleasant conversation you know for me to pass on the information that they’re responsible for this debt even though they weren’t the property owner at the time, said Kevin Milton, director of Code Compliance for the City of Savannah. “But we work with every property owner.”

Milton began the collections process in the middle of 2019. It’s a program he started after he discovered how little the city was collecting on unpaid fines.

At the time, the amount was closer to $4 million, but the dates on most of those fines had passed the statute of limitations, meaning they were dismissed.

As of last week, the city is on its 11th round of lien notices.

Of the roughly 340 notice of liens the city has sent out, less than half of the owners have responded with an agreement to make payments, Milton said. From there, the issue becomes a legal battle handled in the courts.

Property owner Tory Goldwire, who lives in Atlanta, is one of the property owners who has agreed to pay after being notified. She recently entered a payment plan with the city - $100 per month – until her $2,300 bill is paid off. She’s determined to keep up with the property on East 33rd Street. It includes a house and two lots she inherited from her father Abe Goldwire who died in 2014.

But she is openly frustrated with the city of Savannah about the process.

She took ownership of the property in September of 2020. Six years after her father died and after a lengthy probate court process.

During that time, she said she was able to establish a good working relationship with code compliance as the apparent heir.

“We’ve always had a good relationship,” Goldwire said. “I’m not there to go by the property every day or every week, so when she would ride by the property she would say, ‘hey, it’s getting a little high over there you might want to send someone over.’”

The courtesy calls ended a few years ago, but she continued to have a friend check on the property she said.

In November, just two months into her new ownership, she received a notice from the City of Savannah.

The letter described a “history of violations” going back to 2017 and said she owed more than $2,300 in outstanding fines for what the city had to pay a contractor to remove illegal dumping from the property.

“Out of all this time, and the ongoing relationship, why was this particular time so different that you would you stick a notice to a vacant house versus contacting me like you have in the past,” she said.

For her and 1,500 other property owners, the city says it’s time to pay what’s owed. And if they don’t, property owners face liens on their properties.

“Our process doesn’t change,” Milton said. “We make every effort to contact the property owner and the interest parties.”

He and Goldwire have discussed her situation at length, and ultimately, she decided to begin making the payments. WTOC Investigates reviewed the list of who owes the city and how much.

Most of the outstanding fines are worth a few hundred dollars, and in many cases are owed by private citizens who inherited the property and live out of town, Milton said.

But there are anomalies. The owner of the Evergreen Cemetery owes the most – $94,000 in fines. The amount represents two massive clean ups on site in November of 2019 to clear the property from piles of illegal dumping, according to data from the city and previous reports by WTOC.

As for Goldwire, she says she’ll continue to make her payments to the city and send someone to check on her property.

She’s even placed signs on the property to warn people it’s private property and under surveillance. It’s her attempt to stop the ongoing illegal dumping on her corner of Grove and East 33rd streets.

It’s an effort she can’t stop alone and wants the city to consider how it can partner with her and others who face a similar predicament.

“Catch the people who are actually doing the dumping, and that will stop, Goldwire said. " I realize neighbors don’t want to have a bunch of trash around their properties. I see the lady across the street out there every day picking up trash.”

Out of the roughly 340 notice of liens the city has sent out, less than half of the owners have responded with an agreement to make payments. From there, the issue becomes a legal battle handled in the courts.

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