If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
By Marc Robertson
More than a dozen owners of empty lots or abandoned houses in Cotulla have been sent notice this month that their properties have been targeted by City Hall for clearing and that they may be billed for the work.
In a move prompted by a unanimous vote from councilors present at Thursday night’s meeting, April 8, City Hall is instructing Attorney Steve Pena to begin preparing liens against delinquent taxpayers’ properties with a view to having municipal labor reimbursed.
The city attorney, however, said last week that it is possible some of the property owners have died and heirs are unaware that they are responsible for the upkeep of homes or empty lots in Cotulla that they may never have visited.
In the event that properties are sold at a tax auction, according to the attorney, those that have been cleared of structures may be more appealing to bidders and may again generate property tax revenues.
City Hall has indicated that local residents’ complaints about dilapidated properties have included safety concerns related to wild animals, criminal activity and fire hazard.
The city’s ongoing effort to rid residential neighborhoods of overgrown lots, abandoned homes, collapsed structures and other public nuisances was launched in 1996 by Pablo Gonzales, who was mayor at the time. The city’s directive encouraged the clearing of abandoned lots and made it possible for the city to do the work and send a bill for the clean-up to owners. When owners could not be found or property taxes had not been paid, liens were attached.
Over the past 25 years, the city has cleared dozens of properties and sought payment for its work.
Atty. Pena told councilors that the new declaration of public nuisance on which they were voting last week was the first step in the process regarding a rake of properties, some with structures still standing.
“People may be dead or have moved on,” the attorney said. “If the property is sold by the tax attorney, the fee [for the work] is paid to the city and the lien is released.”
City Administrator Larry Dovalina told councilors that not all of the targeted properties are presently in tax foreclosure.
“We are asking the city council to take action,” Dovalina said. “We sent certified letters. For the most part, they have been received. One or two have not.”
According to the city administrator, the process initiated by last week’s vote includes a 30-day notification period, after which city work crews may enter the properties, clear up overgrown brush and demolish abandoned houses. After the work is done, he said, Pena will prepare a lien against each.
“If owners express a desire to do their own work, we try to work with them,” Dovalina said. “We want action taken. This clean-up is for the benefit of the community.
“Some houses have snakes,” the city administrator said, “and this has been affecting the neighbors.”
“A lot of times, the people who are not maintaining their properties don’t have the money to do it,” Atty. Pena said, “but then we clean it up and a neighbor wants to buy it. Then it goes back on the tax rolls.
“These houses are so bad,” the city attorney said of the properties identified on the council’s list last week. “San Antonio has been doing this as well. They demolish hundreds of homes a year.”
“This will make our city look better,” Mayor Javier Garcia said.
“We have done thirty or forty homes so far,” the city administrator said. “When we publicize this, some people come forward and ask us to do theirs as well, and they offer to pay.
“People want us to knock down buildings,” Dovalina said. “They can’t do it themselves.”
“No one can do this cheaper than the city,” Atty. Pena said. “A $1,500 lien doesn’t even cover half of the actual cost, but in many cases this is the last resort.
“People are dead,” the city attorney said, “or someone owns the property and doesn’t want to come down.”
Councilor Eloy Zertuche said he believes there are also concerns in the community over abandoned vehicles causing hazards, in some cases because they have been parked close to intersections and obstruct drivers’ views of other traffic.
The city attorney said code enforcement efforts related to abandoned vehicles have been stymied by a lack of law enforcement weight behind the city’s clean-up efforts.
“Without municipal police, our code compliance officer can’t go out there and force people to move things,” Pena said.
“We are really concentrating on homes, but we can address the other issue as well,” the city administrator said.
Properties identified last week by City Hall and declared a nuisance in the council vote under the Texas Health & Safety Code, making them subject to municipal demolition, were listed as follows with their owners:
Alejo and Amanda Ortiz, 605 Mendez Street, with a 14’x56’ mobile home; Manuel S. Del Toro, c/o Thomas Del Toro, 903 Alta Vista St.; Florencio B. Cristan, 806 Velasquez St.; Librada Lozano, SW Lane St.; Arthur E. and Thelma E. Seidel, 702 Guadalupe St.; RC Garcia, c/o Ramon Garcia, 304 Hall St.; Elsa De Los Santos Charo, 412 S. Market St.; Graciela Ortiz, Saltillo St.; Jesus Carrizales, 501 Alta Vista St.; Thomas Garcia Jr. and Georgia Gonzales, 308 NE Copp St.; Dominga P. Gonzalez, Lalo Gonzales St.; Guadalupe Ayala Jr. and Jesus Antonio Ayala, 505 Thornton St.; Ignacia R. Ruiz, c/o Maria Bernal, Matamoros St.; and Pearla and Maximiliano Carranza, c/o Joe Lumbreras Jr., Nueces St., .287 acres.