County considers tax liens to recoup cleanup costs

Robert Houk • Jan 21, 2020 at 12:00 AM

The Washington County Commission will consider a new process to speed up the reimbursement of court-ordered cleanups of private property.

The county’s Budget Committee has recommended recouping those costs by attaching a lien for the cleanup work to the property owner’s annual tax bill. Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the resolution at their meeting on Jan. 27.

County officials have spent several months researching the issue after the subject came up during a Budget Committee meeting late last year.

Currently, the county places a lien against the property to recover cleanup costs. That reimbursement, however, doesn’t come to the county until the property is sold.

Commissioner Jim Wheeler noted in November it could take “two generations” before a family sells the property in question and settles the lien.

Washington County Attorney Allyson Wilkinson said records from her predecessor show there have been $162,750 in liens placed on property in recent years to settle environmental cleanup costs. Of that amount, just $61,228 has been recovered.

Wilkinson told committee members earlier this month that state statutes affirm the county does have “the power to assess the cost of cleaning up property that endanger the health and safety of citizens.”

She said state law also allows the county trustee to collect such fees, but doing so is not defined as part of the trustee’s statutory duties.

“So, it will take cooperation,” Wilkinson told the committee.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said County Trustee Rick Storey has agreed to attach liens for cleanup costs to yearly property tax bills.

“This is a way forward,” Grandy said of the lien process.

Commissioner Freddie Malone said he would like to see a new system put into place quickly to deal with what he called a ”runaway train” of escalating cleanup costs.

“I’m eager to collect as much as we can, as soon as we can,” Malone said.

Meanwhile, the Budget Committee has agreed to put action on five cleanup projects — estimated to cost a combined $52,000 — on hold until February.

“This will allow commissioners time to vote on a new process,” said Wheeler, who made the motion to defer the items.

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