Thursday, November 19, 2009

First responders in danger because inspection services not following the VBML ordinance?

As many of my regular readers know, I am fighting the city over their insistence that I obtain a VBML or apply for waiver based on their decision in 2005 which I believe was flawed, inaccurate and inapplicable to us since we bought the house 3 years later with a clear title from the feds and a title search. This article is based on our research into public city records.
Aside from the concept of getting properties into a stable condition or into better hands, it has always been the a part of the VBML ordinance to put buildings into a condition that renders them safe for our first responders to enter in the event of a fire or police run.

In fact City solicitor Paula Boggs-Muething has stated that goal as a primary defense position in a current case an October 2007 lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati,that alleged Cincinnati’s program violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause and is “an abuse of corporate powers” conferred upon Cincinnati by the Ohio Constitution. Attorneys Christopher Finney and Curt Hartman, representing property owners,.

In a August 2008 article in the Cincinnati business Journal Ms Boggs-Muething who represents the city stated:

"We’re really talking about the very worst buildings in the city – the most unsafe,” said Paula Boggs Muething, the assistant city solicitor defending the city in the case. “There is a blight issue. But there’s also a very present safety issue to emergency responders.

“We don’t want firefighters to be subjected to roofs and floors that will cave in on them. I think that we have a pretty good case.”

Everyone, myself included, feels that is a worthy goal. However, in conducting our legal research we found that City Inspections routinely ignores enforcement tools that are part of the law that REQUIRE city inspections to conduct followup inspections when people do not pay for a renewal of a VBML fee, a common occurrence that occurs due to the foreclosure crisis.

As part of our research in our own pre prosecution hearing on the 24th with building inspections we researched the records concerning our house. We found that the previous owners did in fact obtain a VBML license as it is noted in city inspection records on 2/1/2007 Vacant and secure. Owner has applied for a vbml. It is our contention that the previous owners were "bullied' into obtaining a VBML and the main issue, a broken windows and open door would have been easily corrected under a repair order and the house did not need to be ordered kept vacant. However we all know there ARE properties with serious structural issues that have a VBML against them.

By the time the second year of the VBML license fee was due , a 1800 payment, the previous owners had exhausted all their financial resources, a 25000.00 loan they took out to put a new roof, replacement windows and furnace in the property. They "walked away" from the house and the loan and the house was in pre foreclosure.

When a VBML has expired and the owner has not renewed it the VBML ordinance provides remedies to city inspections.

1101-129.3A Fee as a Lien: If the owner fails to pay the amount due for the license. for renewal of the license, or as a fine for being out of compliance with the vacant building requirement, said amount shall constitute a debt due and owing to the city, and the city may commence a civil action to collect such debt

Now if the city pursued this, there would be a lien placed against the property which would show up on a title search and would alert a bank who is foreclosing,or a subsequent buyer who would consider buying the house, that the VBML issue exists. This would also insure that the property doesn't fall into disrepair as the Mortgage company would be put on notice of the issue because the lien is a part of public record and would be disclosed during a foreclosure proceeding or sheriff's sale as title searches typically include court liens but title companies rarely, if ever, search inspection records.

I raised this issue with people at city inspections and received the following reply from Ed Cunningham at city inspection in an email on 11/10/2009:

The fee as a lien provision you cite does not create a requirement that the City file a lien. It reads the City "may" file a lien.

Mr Cunningham is correct that the word "may" does not compel the city to file a lien, however because the city does not file those liens, important notification of VBML issue is not made aware to either a lender of a new property owner meaning important inspections may be delayed or not done at all.

However city inspection does not have the option in section 1101-79.2 which does not use the word "may" but in fact uses the word "shall" which clearly directs city inspection to conducta follow-up inspection.

1101-79.2Inspection: The director of buildings and inspections shall inspect the premises at the end of the compliance period and any extension granted pursuant to § 1101-72.1, for the purpose of determining the structural integrity of the building, and that it will be safe for entry by fire fighters and police officers in time of emergency, and that the building and its contents do not present a hazard to the public during the time that the building remains vacant.

The ordinance even gives city inspections a further step in the event they cannot contact the owner. They "must" obtain a search warrant to enter the property and make sure it is safe and secure to protect first responders who may enter a property in the event of a fire or police run. From the VBML code:

1101-79.1 APPLICATION : If the owner fails or refuses to consent to and arrange for an inspection, the director must first obtain a search warrant from a court of competent jurisdiction to authorize inspection of the premises for the purpose of determining the structural integrity of the building.

According to public records there is no record of the director of city inspection either inspecting the building as REQUIRED under the law OR making any attempt to obtain a search warrant from a court to enter the property for the purpose of inspection.

Fortunately our house has no safety issues in the first place that would endanger a first responder, if they did need to enter our house BUT as a community leader and taxpayer I am VERY concerned that a cornerstone directive of the VBML is not being followed by city inspections and our first responders are being potentially placed in danger. We all know that there are houses and buildings that have been siting vacant for 10 to 20 years that have REAL structural problems that could injure a firefighter who would enter those properties in the event of a fire.

I thought "perhaps' this was an isolated case but when I began to research city records I found numerous properties where no followup inspection was done.

In fact I was so concerned I forwarded this issue to Paula Boggs-Muething at the city solicitors office so she could review the inspection records and some of my correspondence to officials at city inspections. She has responded to my email and indicated she will speak with the appropriate City officials and indicated she would perhaps like to meet to discuss these issues.

If you have a vacant property in your neighborhood and want to research if in fact it has had a followup inspection you can do so at this site:

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