City tables discussion on city-owned property sale policy

THREE RIVERS — The Three Rivers City Commission tabled discussion Tuesday on a new policy that could change how the city sells city-owned tax sale properties.

The city currently purchases tax foreclosed properties from St. Joseph County in order to control the redevelopment of those properties. At the commission’s last meeting in January, they requested that a policy for disposing and selling those properties be drafted “in order to be fair and give the City Commission flexibility to make the best decision for the city,” according to an executive summary of the issue.

The proposed policy would call for city staff to first analyze the properties in the city limits that are due for the county’s next tax sale and make a recommendation to the city commission on which properties to purchase ahead of the sale, which could include residential homes, commercial properties, industrial properties or vacant lots.

Once that decision is made, under the proposed policy, a 30-day notice and resolution would be posted for any real property that the city commission wishes to sell or donate from those acquired properties, which would allow the general public to know in advance and ask questions or make an offer. City Manager Joe Bippus would then review offers submitted during that period and present a report to the city commission, who would then either accept one of the offers, none of the offers, or donate the property to the Three Rivers Housing Development Corporation (HDC).

Bippus, who authored the draft of the policy, was not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting.

At-Large Commissioner Daryl Griffith was hesitant to approve the new policy Tuesday, mainly because it puts most of the power over how the properties get sold with the city commission.

“This would put every city property that we get right back into the situation we had before the Housing Development [Corporation],” Griffith said. “I don’t see a need for the Housing Development Corporation if we’re going to look at every single one of them and decide whether we should sell them or not, who we should sell them to and what requirements would be on that. I saw that as the reason we have a Housing Development Corporation, so we can put it on them.”

Mayor Tom Lowry said it would be a good thing for city staff to “do a little more work” in terms of doing analysis on the properties before they decide to buy them.

“If we do own it, I’d like city staff to then, if they have a direct plan for the future for the property, I’d like to hear it maybe at the same time as we start out the 30-day acceptance of bids,” Lowry said. “I’d like to hear what city staff proposes for each property, whether it’s to sell it right away, hold it or give it to the Housing Corporation.”

Ultimately, Lowry said it “wouldn’t be appropriate” to approve the policy Tuesday without Bippus to answer commissioners’ questions about the policy.

Griffith noted that, from his interpretation, the city’s charter states that the city has to have a plan on what to do with those properties at the beginning of the 30-day open bid period. City Attorney J. Patrick O’Malley said while he agrees, the city commission hasn’t always followed that procedure. Griffith then noted that, usually, the plan after 30 days would be to sell the property to the HDC, which satisfied the legal requirement.

O’Malley said it would be helpful if the city commission could add more detail so there’s a “clear path” for prospective homeowners to buy those properties.

“There was a suggestion that the commission would want homes to be purchased by the potential homeowner,” O’Malley said. “What has happened is … I think most of the properties end up being purchased not by homeowners, and they’re purchased by a developer who then sells them to homeowners.”

Griffith said he wants those properties to be single-family homes, rather than multi-unit rental properties, which O’Malley thinks should be part of the policy also.

City Finance Director Cathy Lawson, a member of the HDC, said out of the eight properties the HDC obtained and subsequently sold to developers, four of them have been sold to homeowners and have become primary residences, two of them are currently for sale with pending sales, and one has a developer still renovating it.

Lawson then defended the HDC and what it has done over the last few years.

“The commission created the authority, and over the last few years, we have definitely worked hard to develop processes and procedures, which have been tried and tested,” Lawson said. “As a board, we have collectively been able to work through all those processes with these homes, and we’ve learned as we went, but I think we’ve gotten a good package now where we get the inspection, we build the property sale information packet, put it out there in the public both on the city’s website and Facebook.

“In my opinion, yes, the city does have the right to still sell the houses, and I don’t think the commission should give up that right,” Lawson continued. “But certainly we have gone through the last four years really honing in on what the commission has asked us to do.”

Lowry then tabled the discussion until the city’s next meeting on Feb. 16, saying the commissioners “really need the other half of the discussion, of the equation” to make a decision.

In other business…

  • Commissioners approved a detailed site plan for the new Meadowbrook Farms West development in the 23.5 acres of land located off of Portage Avenue immediately west of the current Meadowbrook Farms. The first phase of the four-phase project is intended to develop the first 10 of 52 single-family condominiums in the development.
  • Commissioners approved the $24,111 purchase of Ayyeka Wavelets sewer monitors for the wastewater treatment plant.
  • Commissioners approved a $12,500 purchase order through Vista Analytical Labs of El Dorado Hills, Calif. for wastewater PFAS analysis for the 2022 fiscal year.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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