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County backs bill for new funding plan for demolitions

An abandoned home 819 Pine St. Waukegan awaits demolitiFriday Nov. 8 after city officials spent about six years trying address

An abandoned home at 819 Pine St. in Waukegan awaits demolition Friday, Nov. 8, after city officials spent about six years trying to address blighted conditions that resulted from two different fires damaging the structure. | Dan Moran/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 16, 2014 6:05AM

Every year, Lake County budgets $50,000 to demolish abandoned properties that have been deemed unsafe and unlikely to be taken care of by the owner.

While that amount isn’t spent every year, the $10,000 to $20,000 that does go into razing neglected structures in unincorporated areas has piled up in recent years to around $135,000 in expenses that Illinois counties are basically powerless to collect.

“We’ve had a fairly brisk pace of abandonments making the way through our system over the past several years,” said Eric Waggoner, the county’s director of planning, building and development, adding that the county wants the same collection options currently held by municipalities when dealing with abandoned residences.

Toward that end, the county is backing legislation sponsored last month by State Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, that would give counties the power to place a lien on an abandoned property, requiring a new owner to pay off demolition funds before being issued a tax deed.

“We already have a fund in place to cover the costs at the front end to hire a contractor and take a building down,” Waggoner said this week. “What the bill would do is allow us to recoup the money at the back end through the lien process. (That’s) a right and a remedy that’s already existing for municipalities. This is leveling the playing field.”

Filed as the 98th General Assembly began in January, the bill adds counties to a list that currently includes cities, villages and incorporated towns when it comes to collecting funds spent on “police and welfare power” regarding properties.

Bush said in a statement that “this plan simply gives counties the same ability to reclaim the funds that they’ve previously invested in keeping citizens safe from dilapidated properties. To continue on a path of economic recovery, we should not be making it more difficult for counties to perform community upkeep and maintain public safety standards.”

The proposal earned a unanimous recommendation from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 4 and now moves to the floor next week for a third reading. Waggoner said until the bill becomes law, the county will have to work with property owners to avoid demolition costs.

According to figures supplied by the county, officials have handled 134 cases of residential structures that were deemed unsafe or open to intrusion since 2008. While the vast majority of those saw accommodations made with exisiting property owners, the county resorted to demolition in 11 instances, including four in the last two years.

“Voluntary compliance has always been our preferred route, where the owner takes care of the problem so the county does not have to intervene,” he said, adding that, when this fails, “that pile of (demolition) debt will keep increasing until we have the same rights that adhere to municipalities.”

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