Overgrown lots spark debate in Hammond

City officials engaged in a sometimes heated debate Tuesday on what can reasonably be done to keep grass cut and trash removed from vacant lots in the city.

Bobby Mitchell, director of the city’s buildings department, told City Council members at a meeting Tuesday that keeping lots cleared is an ongoing challenge. He said no easy solutions are available, adding that city officials aren’t contemplating changing existing city ordinances at this time.

Mitchell’s remarks were in response to comments from City Councilman Lemar Marshall who earlier had asked that the problem with tall grass and unkempt yards be addressed at some point and that changes to existing city ordinances be considered.

Mitchell presented a report on procedures that must be followed before the city can cut grass on privately owned land. It takes about three to four weeks from the time a complaint about tall grass is made until the city is able to hire a contractor to cut the grass, Mitchell said.

He conceded that some residents get upset with the amount of time it takes to cut grass on vacant lots in their neighborhoods but said the city is limited by law in what it can do.

Before the city can cut grass on a private lot, Mitchell said, the owner must be located and notified by certified mail that the grass must be cut.

The city has to wait for a response from that correspondence and then allow the owner the first opportunity to cut the grass.

If the owner does not respond, Mitchell said, the city can hire a contractor to cut the grass. The grass must reach a height of at least 18 inches before the city can compel a property owner to cut it, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said that the city charges the property owner $2 per front-of-lot feet to cut the grass. That cost is then charged to the property owner’s tax bill. If the city has to cut the grass again, the charge is $3 per foot.

About 125 cases regarding tall grass have been processed in the past three months, according to Mitchell, and about three-fourths of the owners have voluntarily cut the grass on their lots. Mitchell said that the city budgets $21,000 a year to cut grass on vacant lots.

Marshall argued that the city could do a better job and asked Mitchell if he could present the council with a written plan for possible revisions to existing ordinances to provide for better grass cutting on vacant lots.

Mayor Mayson Foster said he had discussed the matter with Mitchell previously and is satisfied the laws now on the books are sufficient to address the problem with uncut lots.

“We can’t give an assurance that we can make absolutely every lot in the city pristine,” Foster said. “We just don’t have the financial resources to do so. We are doing the best we can at this time.”

Foster accused Marshall of making a political issue of the problems with uncut grass.

In other matters, Foster announced that sales tax receipts in May were 6 percent higher than the same month the previous year. A total of $1.46 million was collected during the month. Sales tax collections have risen steadily over the past two years, and projections at this time indicate that the city will close out the 2012-13 fiscal year, which ended Sunday, with a balance of $967,505 over the budgeted amount.

The mayor announced the city will hold its Independence Day celebration at Zemurray Park on Wednesday, with the park opening for festivities at 6:15 p.m. He said the miniature train will be running in the park and that several food and ‘fun” venues will be available for participants. A fireworks show will start after full sunset.