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Abatement liens due sooner under council plan
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When a property owner fails to correct a nuisance and the city steps in and pays for the work to be done, the cost goes against the property as a lien. That debt typically isn't paid until the property is sold, whenever that may be.

However, under a plan being adopted by the Ceres City Council, such debts would be due and payable much sooner.

The council voted unanimously July 14 to put the cost on the tax roll as a "special assessment," meaning the debt would be due the next time annual property taxes are paid. Property taxes are billed in two payments, the first in December and the second in April.

"It is an easier way to collect the money," explained City Attorney Michael Lyions.

The new ordinance also allows the city to tack on the administrative costs and any fines and penalties relating to code enforcement and nuisance abatement problems, he said.

The city cannot place a lien on any property without first notifying the owner by special notice about a hearing, said Lyions.

Steve Breckenridge, a frequent member of of council audiences, challenged the city's line of thinking.

"Now, over a code violation, we're going to endanger this person's property to be seized and sold?," said Breckenridge. "Where in all of this has this person had a trial? ... Who determined that person's guilt that we would put his property, his home, in jeopardy?"

Breckenridge has been at odds with the city over its administrative hearing process. He feels a property owner should have a court trial with regard to code enforcement issues.

Lyions said the city has administrative hearings in place regarding the notice and hearing opportunities for those owners. "Mr. Breckenridge raises the issues that he always has with administrative enforcement proceedings and he has a right to raise those issues. I respect that right. He does not believe an administrative proceeding is a court trial. He's correct; it is not. However the laws of the state of California specifically permit such proceedings. They have been held to be constitutional."

Breckenridge answered back: "I don't care what the state law says. You now know, Mr. Mayor, the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land and it has not been changed. That man has an inviolate right to a trial."

Before the city ever gets to the lien stage, Lyions noted, the city must give an owner plenty of time to correct violations on any property.

Mike Kline wanted to know who is on the hook for code enforcement abatement costs in the case of a rental. Lyions replied that the landlord is ultimately responsible.

Councilman Ken Lane asked about how the change would affect clean-up of foreclosed properties. Lyions said a bank foreclosure could wipe out a normal lien but cannot dismiss an assessment on the tax roll.