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The Investigators: Memphis taxpayers foot the bill for overgrown lots

Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 10:27 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Uncut properties across Memphis could be pulling money out of your pocket.

The city responded to 20,000 grass complaints last year.

Joyce Lang has lived in her south Memphis home for more than 20 years, but during the summer months, she rately gets to enjoy her backyard.

“You can’t sit outside because you think something is going to come over in your yard because the grass is so tall,” said Lang.

She fears unwanted comany creeping from her neighbors’ overgrown lots. Lang says as the grass grows, so does the number of rodents, snakes, and insects.

Lang sangs this has always been the case. “Always,” she said. “If I don’t call, nobody calls.”

Lang calls 311, the city’s complaint line to report neglected properties. A crew us usually dispatached within a couple of weeks to cut the grass. Sometimes, it takes longer. Then, once it’s cut, the process starts all over again.

Las summer, Lang got so sick of calling, she stopped.

“I caught mice every day for a week. I’m like, Oh God, I’ve got tp do something,” Lang said.

That’s when she turned to the Action News 5 Investigators. We first visited Lang’s home last June.

“It’s like you don’t want to come home. It’s like I’m in a forest or somethingin the wilderness,” Lang said.

Fast forward to this summer, Lang is back to begging the city to get the grass under control.

“Whose responsibility do you think it should be to cut the grass? The people that own the property,” Lang said.

Christ Missionary Baptist Church owns four overgrown properties near Lang. She says the lots were not maintained before the church owned them, but the problem has persisted under their ownership.

“It’s heartbreaking, but what can we do? I try to do what I can and that’s call to keep it cut,” said Lang.

The process to have the city cut the privately-owned lot begins with a call to 311. If the city finds a property owner’s grass is more than a foot high, the owner is sent a violation notice and given seven days to cut it. If they don’t lawn care companies contracted by the city do it for them, and Memphis taxpayers foot the bill.

“My money is paying for they lot and then I’m turning around paying for my own lot to be cut. That’s not fair,” Lang said.

The city tries to recoup the cost by billing neglectful property owners.

Tax records show from 2011 to 2020, the city charged Christ Missionary Baptist Church more than $19,000 for cutting grass on 19 of their properties. The church paid most of that back, but according to those records, still owes more than $4,000.

That’s a small amount compared to how much Memphis Public Works spends in total cutting grass on neglected, private properties. It spent more than $1.1 million cutting nearly 10,000 properties from June 2019 to July 2020.

More was spent in the pprevious, pre-pandemic fiscal year. $1.7 million was spend on neatly 15,000 properties.

We checked with similar sized cities and found Memphis spends more cutting privately owned lots than Nashville and Louisville combined, and about the same amount as Kansas City, Missouri.

Property owners are billed $69 an hour for the city to clean up their yards and if they don’t pay, a lien could be placed on their property. Our investigation revealed more than half of those property owners never pay up.

Last year, the city recovered only $530,000 of the $1.1 million it spent mowing grass.

The investigators asked a lawn care worker if she thinks the process works.

“No. I’m just going to be honest with you,” said Yolanda Spates with Coleman Lawn Services.

Spates cuts neglected lots for the city.

First thing we do is walk through and look for trash, bricks, bottles,” she said. “There’s no telling what you may find. You may find a dead animal, a dead woman.”

Spates says she’s found bodies twice while cutting grass for the city. The property Dpates was cutting when we met up with her is owned by a man living in Orlando, Florida.

On the phone he told us he couldn’t afford to keep the lot cut or pay the property taxes. City records show it’s currently in a tax sale.

Another thing city records show is many of the lots people complain about are actually owned by the City of Memphis

Approximately 100 properties in 2020 and 300 in 2019 were cut only after the high grass was reported to code enforcement.

The city said in a statement, “We try to maintain all of our properties before any reports are made.”

We asked how that maintenance is scheduled, but are still waiting for an answer.

Back on Lang’s street, mowers started moving after we reached out to Christ Missionary Baptist Church about its overgrown lots, but the church failed to talk with us about the cost to taxpayers to keep up their properties.

A spokespoerson said by email, “Our initial review shows significant inconsistencies between the records and characterizations you provided and our records and reviews.”

The church didn’t respond to the investigators’ request to address any inconsistencies or to review their documents.

“If you own the property, take care of it,” said Lang. “That’s all we ask. They’re not being good neighbors. They’re not neighbors at all. They just have the property. They’re not neighbors.”

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