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Police Chief Christopher Leusner discusses the township's pensions with a resident during the meeting.

Nikita Biryukov / For The Gazette

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — The Township Committee on Monday passed a long-awaited ordinance aimed at blunting the financial strain posed by roughly 100 abandoned and dilapidated properties by providing new and more rapid methods to rehabilitate homes that are unfit for habitation or pose a threat to the health of the community.

The ordinance calls for an appointed public official to draft a list of offending homes in the township, notify the property owners and, if an owner takes no action to rehabilitate the problem site, transfer ownership of the property to lien holders, qualified rehabilitation agencies or the township itself.

“The whole idea is to put pressure on these property owners to rehab or demolish their property,” Business Administrator Elizabeth Terenik said.

In addition to seizure through eminent domain, the law allows for the sale of liens on abandoned homes with delinquent property-tax payments. The bearer of those liens could eventually foreclose on the property.

Alternatively, the property could change hands through a receivership, Terenik said.

In a receivership, a rehabilitation organization like Habitat for Humanity could renovate the property for use as affordable housing. All funds used for this rehabilitation turn into a lien against the home, which the organization can use to foreclose on the property.

Terenik said the township intends to keep the initial list of vacant homes short, filling it with just the five worst offending properties to avoid a variety of filing fees and costs associated with notifying property owners.

The new law supplements an existing ordinance that requires owners to register vacant properties, pay a $500 fee every six months and keep grass cut, weeds pulled and debris cleared or risk fines of $100 to $1,000.

“We have so many other tools we're using. For example, we're actively pursuing orders to demolish properties,” Terenik said. “A lot of the hundred actually are unsafe structures, so we peeled off a bunch, and the construction official is dealing with them that way.”

Police calls

The committee also passed an ordinance aimed at reducing excessive police service calls, particularly those made to some of the township’s motels, police Chief Christopher Leusner said.

Under the new law, tenants and property owners could face fines if they exceed a certain number of calls in a 60-day period. Residential properties with fewer than five units are deemed to be excessively using municipal services after calls for five incidents, while all other units are in breach after 10 qualifying calls.

“In the past, we've had motels, going back just a couple of years, with calls for service north of 300 in one year for one property,” Leusner said. “So, while I think there may be a residential property here or there – a problem property – this, most likely, is not going to impact any residential properties.”

Not all violations count as incidents under the ordinance. While calls for possession or distribution of narcotics and aggravated assault qualify as violations, officials have taken pains to make sure issues still get reported.

“If someone's a victim of domestic violence, this ordinance isn't going to affect that,” Leusner said. “That's not a qualifying call that triggers the ordinance.”

Budget

These ordinances, as well as three others passed in preparation for the current year’s finalized budget, cleared the committee with two votes in favor and none against. Committeeman Tim Donohue was not present at the meeting.

The township’s preparations for the year’s final budget, which was introduced Monday and is due for a public hearing in an April 16 work session, included an ordinance to exceed the municipal appropriation budget limit, approving a 3.5 percent tax-levy increase, one percentage point higher than the regular 2.5 percent cap.

Officials said the increase was necessary to offset costs from rising pension payments and a higher-than-expected sewer utility surcharge. Fred Caltabiano, an independent financial statement auditor from Bowman & Co., calculated the year’s 1 percent tax-rate increase would constitute a $24.36 tax hike on the average assessed home, which is valued at $242,000.

The increase is expected to bring roughly $300,000 into the year’s budget, Caltabiano said, while an ordinance increasing sewer rates for businesses is expected to bring in at least $237,500.

Other business

The committee also passed an ordinance creating a sixth liquor license in township. While the township could accept bids for the license, Mayor Mike Clark said it had no plans to do so at this time and was only updating its books to reflect a population-based increase in the amount of liquor licenses it is allowed under state law.

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