Years of Mohave County property liens neglected, allowed to expire

KINGMAN - After years of failing to collect any money for the cleanup of dangerous abandoned buildings and land, the Mohave County Board of Supervisors wants to put some teeth into the property liens it attaches to recover costs after the work is done.

The Board could foreclose on those properties so it can forgive their property tax liens and sell them to pay for costs associated with cleaning them up.

Also, it is supporting an amendment to state law that would keep county liens in place despite foreclosures and unpaid property taxes.

The amendment, created by the Mohave County Attorney's office, will be presented to the Arizona Legislature this session.

Property tax liens trump most other liens, but state law currently provides exceptions to county improvement districts, sanitary districts and city liens for environmental abatement. County liens for the cleanup of dangerous abandoned buildings and land have no protection.

"To correct this situation, we've looked at several options," said Nicholas Hont, director of Mohave County Development Services. "The first option is to change the state law, because these types of liens don't have any protection. The other option is to come before the Board on a case-by-case basis and on the properties where the taxes are not worth the property value or there is a large lien amount, the Board may consider foreclosure and that would make our property lien a priority.

"We haven't done it so far, but the county has that authority. We are working with the county attorney's office to pursue that."

Earlier this month, Supervisor Joy Brotherton, District 4, brought up the issue of unpaid property liens during a Board meeting after learning that the county's liens are falling through the cracks when others foreclose on the properties.

The Board instructed staff to report on how much money is being lost and whether the county can make its liens more binding so they aren't removed and the properties resold without the new owners paying for the cleanup by the county.

According to Hont, from May 7, 2001, through Oct. 21, 2013, the county issued a total of $151,970.67 in property liens associated with the cleanup of dangerous abandoned buildings and property. That breaks down into $73,422.02 for District 1, $53,615.77 for District 4 and $24,932.88 for District 5. The other two districts did not have properties that required liens.

None of that money has been recovered.

"When property owners die or move away and leave a dangerous situation, we are charged with cleaning up the mess," said Brotherton. "We put a lien on the property to get our money back, but if the property gets foreclosed on, the lien goes away. That's why I'm concerned. We have spent thousands of dollars in cleanup and we'll never see that money again.

"There are so many of these properties out there, especially in my district, and it has hurt us very badly."

Hont said two county agencies - Development Services and the Health Department - administer cleanup programs that deal with dangerous or unhealthy situations. Hont said most of the Health Department's liens have been successfully recovered over the years because they are lower in value and the result of a court order against an identified property owner.

Development Services liens have not been recovered, said Hont, mostly because of the nature of the cleanup, which is large and often involves building demolition, and because the property's owner could not be found prior to it. Also, in many cases, the liens and abatement costs exceed the property's value.

To top it off, because property tax liens come first, some property tax lien investors wait for the county to clean up the dangerous conditions and then foreclose on the taxes, getting the property clean and clear, said Hont.

Mohave County Deputy Attorney Dolores Milkie recently submitted a request to the County Supervisors Association of Arizona for it to lobby the Legislature this session for an amendment to Arizona Revised Statute 42-18204. The ASA is headquartered in Phoenix and represents the Boards in the 15 counties throughout the state.

The amendment specifically would make all county liens imposed for cleanups binding despite foreclosure on the property. Hont said the change would allow the county more opportunity to recoup the money it will continue to spend on cleaning up nuisance and dangerous properties that have been abandoned.

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