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Editorial: Officials to be praised for flood buyout process

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It has been more than five years since floodwater ravaged parts of Johnson County.

To some people, the flood is receding into history. Several homeowners in Edinburgh, Amity, Franklin and the Center Grove area have rebuilt their homes. Franklin and Johnson County have decided what to do with vacant land where flood-devastated homes once stood.

But there are clear reminders that the flood remains a current event, rather than history. The final six homes on a list of more than 100 being purchased and torn down by local governments still stand. But even these are nearing demolition. So the end of this chapter of local history is in sight.

For more than three years, Franklin has tried to make contact with owners and arrange deals with mortgage companies but hasn’t been able to purchase the last four flood-damaged homes as part of a buyout program. But the city has a new plan to team up with a local agency that could help buy the homes and demolish them by the end of next year.

Johnson County is getting estimates to demolish the final two houses included in its buyout. Those houses in the Bluff Acres subdivision are the last two to be torn down of the 37 the county bought.

When both buyouts are complete, 107 homes will have been torn down with about $8.5 million in federal funds.

Franklin has been working with homeowners, banks and mortgage companies to reach agreements to buy and tear down the homes. Some properties were sold quickly, while others required hours of negotiation with banks before the city could get them. The city was able to buy its first house in February 2010, and since then 62 houses have come down.

The county wasn’t able to buy its first home until November 2010 but will finish its program ahead of Franklin because officials originally planned to buy 50 houses and ended up buying 37.

Houses have been replaced with trees or grassy lots. In Franklin, the main buyout area south of downtown is now an urban forest. Several empty lots at the entrance of the Bluff Acres subdivision also will be reforested, and empty lots in Bluff Acres and the Old Smith Valley area now are used by neighbors as extra yard space.

The four remaining homes in Franklin have been vacant since 2008 and have continued to deteriorate. City street department workers mow the lots when the grass gets tall. One owner has died, a mortgage company doesn’t want to sell another, and two owners have moved away and can’t be reached; and that has delayed the city’s efforts to buy them.

The four properties all have overdue taxes and are being auctioned off in a tax sale. The city can’t use the federal buyout money to purchase the homes through a tax sale, but the Franklin Development Corp., an agency created and funded by the city, could buy them.

The agency would buy the properties at tax sale and hold them for one year as required by state law. Once the development corporation owns the properties, the city could use the federal money to purchase the homes from the agency.

The plan would cost the Franklin Development Corp. at least $3,800 that the city couldn’t reimburse. The city would be able to pay only $1 for one of the homes because of other federal benefits the owner received after the flood, officials have said.

We commend the perseverance of city officials in trying to achieve final resolution of this issue. The hoops they have had to jump through surely must be trying on their patience.

So even though there is work remaining, an end to the flood buyout process is in view. For that we can breathe a sigh of relief.

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