Blighted property among amendments OK’d by Legislature

With thousands of properties caught in a three-year legal holding pattern, Baton Rouge and other officials across the state want the New Orleans treatment on dealing with blight.

New Orleans already secured a state constitutional amendment speeding up the process for disposing of blighted or abandoned property. Owners get 18 months — instead of three years — to redeem, or reclaim, the property by paying purchase price, costs, penalties and interest.

Other municipalities also want to accelerate the process for dealing with unsightly, sometimes rat-infested property. But they will have to wait awhile longer.

The Legislature approved House Bill 256, which would shorten the redemption period for blighted or abandoned property sold. The bill is a constitutional amendment that needs to go before voters.

The next statewide election is not until November 2014. Eight proposed constitutional amendments approved in the 2013 legislative session will share the ballot.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, launched an effort to hold a statewide election this fall, but it failed because statewide elections cost taxpayers $6 million.

Walter Monsour, executive director of the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority, said a coalition of cities supported the decrease in redemption period for blighted and abandoned properties.

He said municipalities are thrown into limbo when a property is declared adjudicated, a legal term that comes into play when taxes aren’t paid. He said the municipality holds the property, but cannot dispose of it until the redemption period expires.

“City-parish has to maintain, cut the grass on them, keep them clean ... with no ability to do anything with that property for three years,” Monsour said.

Louisiana law defines what constitutes a blighted or abandoned property.

Blighted means the premises are “vacant, uninhabitable, and hazardous and because of their physical condition, are considered hazardous to persons or property.”

Abandoned means property is vacant or not lawfully occupied.

Monsour said Baton Rouge currently is responsible for 6,500 properties that are in a holding pattern.

He said the three-year waiting period is a tough sale to developers who could transform blight into prosperity.

“That 18 months can be very critical,” Monsour said. “If you’re ready to go on a project and have to wait an additional 18 months, then it can kill a deal.”

Other propositions that will be on the 2014 ballot:

Ensuring that no tax rebates, incentives or abatements can be considered by legislators in an even-numbered year.

Making changes to the membership of the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission.

Creating more stable funding for Louisiana hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured.

Decreasing the paperwork on a property tax break for permanently and totally disabled homeowners.

Clarifying the eligibility of disabled veterans for an enhanced homestead exemption.

Embedding an artificial reef development fund into the state constitution.

State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, said he pushed for an end to what he called a loophole in limitations on considering new tax breaks.

The state constitution prohibits “legislating with regard to tax exemptions, exclusions, deductions or credits” in an even-numbered year. The document is silent on the issue of tax rebates.

James said the Jindal administration has used the loophole.

“It honors the will of the voters when they asked that we only deal with fiscal matters in fiscal sessions,” he said in describing his proposed constitutional amendment.