Council mulls liens for improvements

By Alex Bridges

Homeowners who owe Front Royal for streetside improvements shouldn’t stop writing checks just yet.

Town Council on Tuesday turned down a request to release property at 125 Hillidge St. from a lien used to pay for a sidewalk built adjacent to the home. Alan Fox, on behalf of his mother, Lillian Sealock Fox, asked the town to take off the outstanding debt of $1,058.49.

Council voted 4-2 against the request, but some members asked that they discuss the idea of forgiving existing liens against all properties assessed for the streetside improvements.

Warren County supervisors on Oct. 1 agreed to buy the Hillidge Street property for $120,000. The property covers approximately 1/10 of an acre and lies adjacent to the county government center at 220 N. Commerce Ave.

Town Manager Steven Burke said Wednesday that he believed the current owner would need to pay any lien owed to Front Royal before the county could buy the property. County Administrator Douglas Stanley said that the sale price did not cover any liens owed to the town by the property owner.

Burke said council could discuss the overall issue of assessments and liens at a future meeting. He didn’t have information on how many property owners were required to pay for assessed improvements or how much money they owe the town.

In an Oct. 1 letter to Burke, Alan Fox states that Front Royal installed a sidewalk adjacent to his mother’s property in 2008.

“My then 77 year old widowed mother did not want, nor ask for a sidewalk on her property as the property already had one,” the letter states. “At the time I petitioned the Town Council to reconsider, but my mother was still charged for the sidewalk.”

Several months later, Alan Fox stated, a new town council decided to end the practice of charging residents for the installation. But his mother remained in debt to the town, the letter noted. At the time of the letter, county officials had not agreed to buy the property. In his letter, Fox asked that the town remove the lien and forgive the remainder of the debt, $2,584.62, for the sidewalk. Fox indicated that his mother had paid approximately half of the original cost.

Council discussed the request at a recent work session and forwarded it to their regular meeting.

On Tuesday, Councilman Daryl Funk reiterated his support to drop the lien on the property.

“I do support that when there’s been an involuntary installation of curb and gutter, when we decide that a citizen needs that, I believe the town should pay for it,” Funk said.

Councilman Bret Hrbek echoed Funk’s sentiment. Hrbek recalled that he and other council members several years ago helped end the town’s practice of putting liens on properties to pay for sidewalk, curb and gutters that owners didn’t request.

Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker said he wouldn’t support the motion.

“As I stated at the work session, if we were to forgive all them in one fell swoop, I think that that would be fair,” Parker said. “But to piecemeal it for only those who come forward and ask for forgiveness, to alleviate those — it’s a bit of a different story.

“Also, given the buyer of this property, I would have hoped that they would’ve included it in their purchase price and I believe they may have from what I’m hearing,” Parker added.

Councilman Thomas Sayre noted that “this is a tough call.” Sayre said Warren County should have compensated the owner for the amount owed on the improvements.

In response to Parker’s comment, Hrbek made a motion to forgive or write off all debt owed by property owners to the town under the previous curb and gutter program.

Parker and Tewalt asked for more information on the total amount of debt owed under the program. Mayor Timothy Darr recalled that Finance Director Kim Gilkey-Breeden at the work session estimated the total amount in liens at $75,000. The town collects $5,000-$10,000 a year, the director told council. Hrbek pointed out that the town would not lose this money if council forgave the liens.

Some property owners already paid off the amounts they owed to the town, Hrbek noted.

“My argument would be that these people had the opportunity to pay it off over a long time,” Hrbek said. “Councils change. Philosophies change. Policies change and we’ve imposed a burden on the citizens that they did not necessarily ask for.”

Hrbek added that he might not support the request if the relief would have to come from town money.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com