Merrillville considers jailing no-show property owners
MERRILLVILLE — Owners of blighted property who fail to attend unsafe building/blight hearings when summoned could end up in jail, under an ordinance being considered by the Town Council.
Attorney Michael Deppe, who represents the town during the monthly hearings, recommended the hearing officer be given contempt power, which would provide him the authority to issue a bench warrant for property owners who skip more than one hearing.
Deppe also recommended that any funds generated from fines for blighted properties be placed in a nonreverting rainy day fund, to be used in the event the town needs to demolish a building.
He pointed out the county is strapped for funds for demolition purposes.
Town officials, frustrated over a lack of progress at the hearings because owners often fail to appear, approached Deppe for possible solutions.
Councilman Shawn Pettit, D-6th, gave the example of a townhouse in the Broadfield development off 93rd Avenue that caught fire about six years ago and nothing’s been done to repair the home as yet. Windows are still boarded up and Pettit said neighbors complain that it smells.
He said the newest owner failed to show to unsafe buildings/blight hearings in June and July.
Pettit said this was just one example.
“None of these people are paying any attention to the hearings. We need to relook at our ordinance,” Pettit said.
Some of the owners are banks, live out of town or purchased the property at a tax sale without knowing what they were buying.
Deppe said without contempt power, the hearing officer has no ability to force someone to come to the hearings.
“They won’t go to jail for not cleaning their property. They’ll go to jail for not showing up,” Deppe said of the owners.
Town attorney John Bushemi agreed with Deppe’s solutions.
He said Deppe would work in cooperation with the hearing officer to prepare a draft, which would be forwarded to Bushemi for review, then sent to the council’s ordinance committee.
Pettit said he is unsure how many hearings the owner would be allowed to miss before a bench warrant could be issued and the owner arrested.
“If they miss one hearing, I’d be willing to let it go. If they miss two hearings, that’s 60 days,” Pettit said.
An empty townhouse in the Broadfield section of Merrillville is boarded up.