Tupelo spends thousands on unkempt lots

TUPELO – Overgrown, unkempt lots aren’t just an eyesore, they’re a costly problem that has city officials eyeing a legislative fix.
Tupelo’s Department of Development Services handles hundreds of lot-mowing cases a year, most of them involving a cumbersome process of paperwork, public hearings, contract bids, liens and fines.
“The total process takes up to 60 days sometimes,” said department Director BJ Teal. And it costs the city tens of thousands of dollars a year.
But, like weeds themselves, the lot-mowing problem seems to be growing.
“There are more,” said Jeff McCoy, owner of J&M Janitorial and Lawn Service, who cuts about 40 lots for the city each year. “It’s more foreclosures and stuff, more properties are just being abandoned and vacated.”
Since the first of the calendar year, the city has contracted for 166 lots to be cleaned and mowed, according to Code Enforcement Coordinator Munita Stanfield.
That doesn’t include the dozens of lots whose owners finally mowed them themselves after the city initiated the process.
When the owners don’t do it, the taxpayers pick up the tab. Teal said the city so far has spent double the $30,000 originally budgeted this year for lot mowing and property demolition – both of which share a line item.
And the work keeps Tupelo’s three code-enforcement officers away from more important jobs like housing inspections and the rental-license program.
“The bottom line is we need help,” Teal said. “We need additional code enforcement officers.”
The city also wants to ease the lot-mowing burden. Teal said she and city officials from a half-dozen other Mississippi municipalities will form a coalition to tackle the problem on a legislative level.
If the state had a common code making the process less cumbersome, Teal said, it would slash the time and steps necessary to get a lot mowed.
Currently, state law requires cities to give property owners a two-week notice before holding a public hearing. If the owner can’t be found, the city must run the notice in the newspaper.
At the hearing, the city provides 10 days for the owner to mow the lot. If not, Tupelo solicits bids from contractors to mow the lots, a process which also takes several weeks.
When that’s done, another process starts where the city places liens and fines on the property.
According to law, the lots must be found a “menace to the public health and safety of the community” before the city can take action. That means the properties are not only unattractive, but possibly dangerous with snakes, rodents, debris and insect-breeding cesspools.
And though summer is prime time for lot-mowing, Teal said the problem actually “goes from April to November.”

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal