Hamilton’s vacant commercial building regulation: 1 property registered since January 2020

Hamilton City Council in October 2019 required that all owners of the many vacant warehouses, storefronts and other business buildings register them with the city. An online registration system went live on the city’s website in January 2020.

In the 16 months since, only one commercial property was registered by May 7. That was largely because the pandemic diverted city fire crews to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and because city staff wanted to go easy on businesses during the difficult economic times, Fire Chief Mark Mercer said. The lone registered property is the former Beckett Paper complex on Dayton Street.

Registration fees range from $400 the first year, doubling annually to $6,400 in year five and later years. Mercer has authority to waive the fees.

When the Journal-News asked for a list of vacant business properties that had been registered, Mercer said: “You ready? 400 Dayton St., and that is the end.”

“Last year we did not pursue enforcement of it, simply because of the impact of the pandemic, and the economic impact on owners,” Mercer said. “We knew it was going to be a hard sell and it was going to be more of a burden to the businesses than it was going to be beneficial to the citizens, so we didn’t pursue that last year.”

The city’s fire department did evaluate some additional properties that went before the city’s Nuisance Appeals Board, in determining whether those buildings should be torn down, Mercer said.

Mercer and others noted Hamilton’s firefighting staff, like many other city departments, has been working especially hard on health measures since the coronavirus pandemic struck early last year. Fire crews and other city staff have spent many hours, and have won a lot of public praise, for their work vaccinating the public.

The fact Hamilton registered one commercial property in a year annoyed some, including Eric Vincent, president of the Butler County Real Estate Investors Association, who in April urged Hamilton City Council to delay legislation requiring registration of empty houses. Council declined to delay the ordinance.

“It would have been nice if before they even started looking at the residential thing, they had actually looked at their numbers (of commercial registrations),” Vincent said. “Was commercial working? Then maybe they wouldn’t have wasted all the time, all the money, to come up with this idea of doing a residential one also.”

It’s starting now

The city in September contracted with the Florida-based company PROCHAMPS to manage the registration of buildings, and billing, because it turned out the city didn’t have the manpower in its firefighting staff to handle the registrations, and PROCHAMPS has more expertise, Mercer said.

PROCHAMPS works with governments across the country on such programs. The company will use addresses provided by the city, and also will sort through foreclosure listings to find parcels.

PROCHAMPS contacts the owners to register the buildings and receive a fee, with the rest of the registration money going to the city to cover operational expenses of managing the program. It is to receive $100 of each fee collected, plus 20 percent of late fees.

“I expect to see letters going out by the end of this month,” Mercer said.

“When we started to find out how many buildings there were, it was unmanageable with the workforce we had,” he said, explaining another reason for the delay of registrations. “We were forced to look outside for somebody who specializes in this. My workforce is focused on making EMS calls, and putting out fires, and serving the citizens.”

Anyone with concerns about blighted, empty houses or business buildings can report them by making MyHamilton (311) service requests through the city’s website, https://www.hamilton-oh.gov/myhamilton .

“The people who live in the neighborhoods, if they see those houses that are causing blight, and there are people that are not supposed to be in there, but the buildings are unsecured, call and let us know,” Mercer said. “We’ll get on it. We work closely with the health department and with the building department. The more information we have about those, we’ll make sure we take care of it.”

Why register empty buildings?

Hamilton officials in 2019 offered two primary reasons for registering buildings and charging the fees:

  • By requiring owners to register, the fire department knows who to contact in emergencies, and also can require them to provide keys to firefighters or give them other means to visit the buildings, for inspections and other reasons. Knowing the conditions inside vacant buildings is critical to firefighter safety, they said.
  • The escalating fees can also prod building owners to sell, which officials hope can give new life to empty buildings, or demolish them. Sandusky’s fire marshal last year told the Journal-News that the commercial building registrations helped reduce his city’s vacant commercial buildings from 115 in 2010 to 11 last year.

Vincent, representing the real estate investors, said he doubted fire crews’ safety was a true motivator. Before City Council this spring decided to add residential registrations, “It was such a big deal that this was about safety, but we’ve only got one property registered,” he said. The city could have registered buildings and waived fees the first year, he said.

“They haven’t successfully registered businesses, so I can’t believe they’re going to successfully register homeowners that have vacant properties,” Vincent said. “But if they successfully do it, I think the city’s going to end up with a whole lot of properties” that it owns, rather than the people who own them now.

By the fourth years, fees are “into the thousands of dollars,” he said. “I think a lot of people are going to go, ‘OK, I can’t afford to bring this thing up to code, so I’m just going to let it go and let them foreclose on it, and they can own it.’ Now, the city has to worry about making it safe. They have to worry about registering it.”

Mercer emphasized he will be very lenient in assessing fees, only doing so for severe cases.

Have a complaint about a vacant Hamilton business or house?

Wish to complain about the state of an empty Hamilton house or business? You can make MyHamilton (311) service requests through the city’s website at, www.hamilton-oh.gov/myhamilton .

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