By Steve Hansen
The abandoned and neglected properties that worry Tucumcari city leaders are also a frustration for the people who try to enforce the city’s building codes.
There are two main reasons some abandoned properties are not maintained, according to Veronica Sandy, the city’s building code enforcement offer.
One is lack of funds — the owner just doesn’t have the money. The other, she said, is that a former owner either cannot be found or has died and it’s impossible to know who the current owner may be.
Meanwhile, the city works a time-consuming process to enforce property maintenance codes.
Sandy said when the code enforcement office receives a complaint about the condition of a lot, she will inspect the property. If she finds that windows need to be boarded up or that weeds need to be cleared, she sends a letter to the property owner.
The letter usually says the owner has 10 days to clean up cluttered or weed-infested property or 15 days to board up windows.
Sandy said she returns to the lot within 15 days, and if there has been no action, she sends out a second notice, giving the owner 10 days to take either action or face a court appearance.
“Sometimes they call and ask for more time,” she said. “I usually will give them some time.”
She said if there is still no action, the matter goes before municipal court.
Municipal Court Judge Joe Dominguez said he will often allow owners another two or three weeks to resolve problems.
“I’ll often have them contact Sandy and work with her,” he said. “About 95 percent get it done in that time,” and pay court costs of $29 but no fine. The fine is usually $100.
When that does not work, Sandy said she is authorized to have the city do the cleanup and bill the property owner.
“That doesn’t always mean it gets done though,” she said, since city crews have limited time for property cleanups.
When buildings and fixtures have deteriorated to the point that they should be torn down, the city’s options are also limited, Sandy said.
“The city does not have the funds or the equipment to tear buildings down,” she said.
According to Sandy, engineers must check for asbestos, lead paint and other toxic materials, and the tear-down must be carefully planned. The city does not have engineers on staff to make these findings, she said.
Another problem is the limited resources the city has available for demolition of abandoned properties.
Vicki Strand, the city’s development director, said the city allocates a total of $163,000 to a grouping of functions that include building code enforcement, human resources and vehicle maintenance.
Strand said about half of that total is often applied to building code enforcement, including Sandy’s $32,000 annual salary. All of that comes out of the city’s $4.4 million in general fund revenues that include property taxes, gross receipts taxes and other sources.
This amount, Strand said, is not enough to cover the cost of building demolitions, especially on older buildings that contain toxic materials like asbestos and require special permits for demolition.
She said two years ago, there were about 90 buildings in the city that were ready for condemnation, and that number, in all likelihood, has not changed much.
Strand said often, the legal status of a piece of property, in foreclosure or litigation, prevents action.
She said in many cases, she simply cannot determine ownership. She listed a dozen properties in the city for which she cannot locate the owner.
Many properties in Tucumcari are either tax delinquent or in foreclosure.
A federal housing and urban development study done in 2008 showed that Tucumcari had the 10th highest rate of foreclosures among 271 communities listed, with a rate of 6.9 percent of properties in foreclosure. The study showed that Tucumcari had the 13th highest rate of properties that had been abandoned for 90 days or more, with 11.2 percent of properties listed being abandoned for 90 days or more.
The study said Quay County’s 6.2 percent of properties in foreclosure placed it third among New Mexico counties with the highest foreclosure rates.
Problems tend to be concentrated in the older sections of Tucumcari — near downtown and north of Route 66 Boulevard, Sandy said.
She said property owners in these areas tend to be older and there are more ownership issues there, resulting from death of the original owner.
Sandy admitted that her job can be frustrating at times, especially with limits on funds for enforcement.
She said no grant funds are available to assist in code enforcement, repeating what other city officials have noted, and she would rather not order a building torn down, preferring to work with property owners to resolve issues.
“I’m all for working with people,” she said. “And I’d rather get it done.”