Letter to the Editor

Your view: Here's an answer

Sunday, February 1, 2004

Dear Editor,

I think Hope Terrell made a good point in her letter on Sunday, namely: If not this, what? It's certainly valid, particularly when dealing with individuals who have some experience, to expect them to offer a substitute. Otherwise, Hope I agree, the conversation is entirely negative.

So here's a proposal. It deals with the two easy issues first.

The SAHEC expansion can be funded largely with the funds that will have been raised by the time the current tax expires (Doug, you were right I didn't count the $180,000 that's encumbered, but that still leaves $700,000.00 plus). Dr. Buchanan's original figure for the cost of that expansion was between $1 million and $1.2 million. That doesn't leave much left to fund and that can be easily financed.

Let the SAHEC tax expire, but replace it with a 1/4 cent general sales tax (no net increase in the tax burden). That will generate $700,000.00 and rising a year. The DPS can almost certainly do what they need to do with $500,000.00. That would be a 23% increase in the total for salaries and overtime at DPS (that doesn't count administration but DPS hasn't been entirely overlooked in the pay raise category). The goal is not to give everyone in government what they want but get them what they need.

In the first full year of collection, FY 2006, the city estimates that such a 1/4 cent sales tax will generate $770,695.00 (they project that to rise to $1,054,749.25 at the end of the ten years, but let's keep this simple). After DPS gets their 500 grand, $270,000.00 would be left for LCRA.

The LCRA board now has a budget and they estimate they will be receiving $150,000 from the BMU and $150,000 in grants from HUD's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program each year. If they were to get that $300,000.00, and all of that $270,000.00, that would give them $570,000.00 a year. It's not the $800,000.00 they want, but they could trim that considerably.

For instance LCRA's budget contains a figure of $100,000.00 a year "targeted to purchase 5 to 10 residential structures in areas that are susceptible to deteriorating market values." It occurs to me that if you can buy a house for $10,000.00, you're already too late to save the neighborhood. At that point you're simply taking a piece of junk off someone's hands, and you're subsidizing slumlords with taxpayer's dollars.

This is the point I've been trying to make for some time: more government money isn't necessarily the answer. Now may be the time for a fuller discussion of the problem.

There are alternatives to the largest tax hike in Sikeston's history. The difference is that these solutions involve disrupting a patronage system and offending some secret, sacred cows. Are we ready for this? Let's talk about Section 8.

First though, let's identify the problem we face and the one we're trying to overcome. If we can reach common ground on that point, it's a good start. Section 8 is not a consequence. It's part of the cause in my opinion, but it's not a result.

The problem we face is that in the last decade we've lost 10 percent of our white population. Can't really see it on the north end. It's the working class families that are moving out. If that trend continues, it will accelerate. Some will say it's racist to even speak in such terms. I don't believe anyone in Sikeston will be better off if this trend continues.

We live in the Bootheel of Missouri where the pool of poor people has no bottom. As long as that population is attracted to move to Sikeston for the benefits, we will not be able to stop those who live one or two rungs up the ladder from them from moving out. These are the people who work and pay taxes.

Now, project a 10 percent decline in the working population of Sikeston forward ten or twenty years. Ask someone in the school system what the implications would be for a higher and higher percent of disadvantaged students in the classrooms. Now ask someone at the hospital what the implications would be for a higher and higher percentage of their patients being "public pay" (i.e. Medicare or Medicaid) as opposed to "private pay." This bell tolls for us all.

Alright then, if the out migration of working class families is the problem, stopping the spread of Section 8 housing must be part of the solution. We have all the tools in place to do that, we have simply lacked the will so far to use them. Allow me to be specific.

One of the problems we've faced, as I discussed in a previous letter, is that landlords of tenement housing have not been forced to maintain, or demolish when necessary, those dwellings. What they've chosen to do instead is let these buildings rot and wait for the city to come along and take them off their hands.

How's that done? They know that if the city won't fine them, but chooses instead to demolish the building for them, the only liability they will have will be a tax bill against the property itself. If the property is worthless (or worth less than the cost of demolishing the building), it's no big deal to let it go.

There's also a more direct approach. Very quietly, and for the past couple of years, the city of Sikeston has acquired title to 112 derelict properties through collector's deeds (meaning the owners didn't pay their tax bills). Had the city not acquired title, the owners would have had a legal obligation to pay for the demolition.

So, by taking these properties off their hands, we not only paid off their tax liens and relieved them of their obligations to pay outstanding back taxes owed to the other public entities (School District et. al), we relieved them as well of their obligation to demolish these structures. As the proud new owners of these properties, the people of Sikeston will now have to pay for that demolition.

Why are we doing this? Why don't we enforce our laws? Would it work? No one knows; it's never been tried. Please remember, from the description above, that a major prerequisite for protecting the slumlord is for them to avoid being fined.

In years past, I've received calls from property owners who've been ordered by the city to demolish their buildings. They were not happy. What I cannot figure out is why certain people get these orders, and others are spared, and consistently spared year after year. Now we're told we need to raise taxes to buy these people out. Why would we do that?

The acquisition of these properties has mushroomed the city's contingent liability for demolition, while relieving certain landlords' of theirs. It's true, it really does pay to have a friend in government. Think that's harsh. Remember this is the same cast of characters who refused to enforce our Rental Ordinance for four years after council passed it. Terry Bryant got it passed when he was Mayor.

But the city's exposure isn't all that large. The LCRA's board insists that they want to work on more properties than just those that are vacant. Isn't that subsidizing the dwelling owners? If we just demolish the ones we now seem to own, and force the landlords to maintain what they own, the liability of the taxpayers would be capped.

So what's the solution for properties with a known landlord? Enforce the law. Levy fines.

Tell the Circuit Court for the 33rd district that we will no longer provide a part-time Municipal Judge and that they will have to assign a full-time Associate Circuit Judge to handle our municipal violations.

Next, consolidate the part-time city attorney job and the part-time city prosecutor job into one full-time position. It's time to concede that these individuals simply cannot withstand the pressure of fining individuals who might seek them out for legal work outside the courtroom for that very reason. They've been given the benefit of the doubt in the past when the city made stiff fines mandatory, and they've found a way around it. Time's up.

Second, we've been told that there's no choice but to put fines on an installment basis, and that you cannot put someone in jail for not paying a fine. O.K., pass an ordinance with a mandatory a sentence for a rental property or property maintenance code violation. That sentence would include both a mandatory fine (which we already have), and a two to three day jail sentence with the jail sentence suspended pending payment of the fine. It won't take too many slum landlords spending a night or two behind bars with Bubba to see a change in behavior.

Third, pass an ordinance that would make the liability for paying a tax bill personal, not merely attached to the now worthless property. A few liens on private residences, or garnishments of wages, should also bring some slum landlords around to our way of thinking.

Forth, and perhaps most crucial, enforce the Rental Ordinance. Monitor the most vulnerable borderline neighborhoods. When dwellings in those neighborhoods change hands and convert from owner occupied dwelling to rentals, send the inspectors. Apply the BOCA code to the letter.

If the plumbing and wiring do not meet the most current standards for safety, inform the new landlords that they will have to tear out the walls and floorboards to bring them up to code before they will be allowed to rent them out. The safety of the public comes first.

It's the Achilles Heel of Section 8. If dwellings are modern enough to have up-to-date plumbing and wiring, they probably cannot be purchased for a price low enough to make Section 8 profitable.

Information is power and anyone can go to Benton to monitor the transfer of residential properties. It's no great trick, by checking the tax rolls, to tell when someone's buying a dwelling to rent it out (clue number one: they're already paying taxes on their own homes).

Of course, some people might chose at that point to get out of the rental business, or be discouraged from expanding their holdings into neighborhoods that are currently, or mostly, owner occupied. That would be too bad.

Where then would the Section 8 voucher holders go? I don't know, but I've heard they're doing some very nice low income housing units in Cape.

For those who shrink from resorting to government with a big "G", it might help to remind ourselves that it was a big Federal government, through Section 8, that got us here in the first place (they were invited here, but that's another topic). They have steadfastly refused to deal with Sikeston's leaders on any level to even moderate our saturation of Section 8 vouchers. In my opinion, we have a right to defend ourselves.

If that doesn't get the job done, we can keep trying. Of course, this won't make certain people happy and it won't require higher taxes. That's right, it won't cost a penny.

Hope, you have more friends on the north end than you know. Several years ago you and Jim wrote to this paper that after you had paid off the mortgage on your home, you were forced to move out of the Clayton subdivision. And, having lost all the equity value in your home, you had to begin, at an advanced age, to start making house payments again. You had a lot of company. Many of us were listening.

What I've tried to say is that by buying out the current Section 8 landlords, we'll be encouraging them to follow you. I want them to stay where they are, pay to demolish what they've got when that time comes, and then get out of the business altogether.

And for those who ask, "who does he think he is?", I answer "it's America, who do you have to be?"

Josh Bill