The city has collected about half of the fees it charged to property owners for cleanups at neglected sites last year, according to an analysis by Niagara Falls' top financial official.
City Controller Daniel Morello told lawmakers on Wednesday that in 2017 the city issued a total $135,372 in fines. It recouped about $75,000 — a collection rate of 55 percent.
This year the charges increased significantly. To date, the city has billed $225,632 to property owners for cleanups, of which the city has collected about $50,000, a rate of 22 percent.
Morello said the figures represent the total fines levied by the city and do not include the hourly labor costs in the Departments of Public Works and Code Enforcement associated with the cleanups. Unpaid fines are added to the next year's property tax bill. He was not tasked with evaluating the reasons for the fluctuation in fines, he said.
Niagara Falls City Council Chairman Andrew Touma said the analysis was scheduled due to requests from residents regarding the program.
Touma called this year's uptick in fines and decrease in collections concerning, particularly as the city continues to contemplate ways to generate new revenues and looks at future workforce reductions.
"That’s a big problem," he said.
Touma said he considered the program "somewhat effective" in that it is aimed at relieving immediate quality of life impacts on residents living next to or near neglected properties, but there remains "room for improvement."
After questions from Councilman Kenny Tompkins, the city's corporation counsel, Craig Johnson, said the city could not pursue owners to recoup the fines because the charges are attached to the property and not the individual.
"Is there any way we can change that?" Tompkins asked, which Johnson said was not possible under state Real Property Tax Law.
After two years of unpaid taxes homes are placed in foreclosure and head to the in-rem auction. The funds are in part used to cover unpaid property taxes. Surplus from the sales is split evenly between the Falls and Niagara County governments.