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Taxpayers foot bill for mowing at many area neglected properties

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Every week this summer, complaints have come in about at least 15 Franklin homes, vacant lots or empty businesses, where the grass and weeds are growing too tall.

Street department workers load up the mower and trimmer and head over to the property.

When they’re done, a bill for at least $200 is sent out. But since often the homes are in foreclosure or abandoned, taxpayers are usually the ones picking up the tab.


So far this year, Franklin already has gotten complaints about more properties than last year, and they expect to mow more of them, too.

Many of those properties are repeats that workers need to trim multiple times per year.

Local governments make rules about how tall grass can be — 9 inches to 24 inches depending on where — because high grass can attract animals or bugs or weeds can produce allergens, Johnson County Highway Department director Luke Mastin said.

But mowing the ones that violate the rules takes workers away from doing maintenance around the Greenwood City Center or picking up brush around neighborhoods in Franklin, and the bills are rarely paid immediately.

Franklin street workers are going to 15 to 25 properties per week when grass is more than 9 inches tall and neighbors start complaining, street commissioner Brett Jones said.

The city has to devote two workers, a truck and trailer, a mower and weed eaters to the job all day for three or four days during the week. Sometimes the yards are mowed by the time the city gets there, but the trip is still wasted time for employees.

So far this year, Franklin has gone to 134 properties for high grass and weed complaints and the city is on pace to exceed the number of properties mowed last year. Franklin now only notifies property owners once, so the city can go out and mow for any additional violations without notice. That’s also increased the number of trips city workers are making, since the city doesn’t have to hold off for another 10-day waiting period every time the grass gets tall again, Jones said.

Greenwood and Johnson County aren’t having to mow people’s lawns quite as often this year, but they wait until the grass gets taller before getting involved.

In Greenwood, your neighbor’s grass has to grow to 12 inches before they’ll send a mowing crew out, and the city is averaging about four trips per week. In the unincorporated county, such as Center Grove area subdivisions, the grass or weeds need to top 24 inches, and they have done eight mowings so far this year.

Typically, governments have to mow properties that are vacant, abandoned or in foreclosure, because no one is living there and the owner may not live nearby, Jones said.

Local governments have fewer problems in neighborhoods with active homeowner associations, because those organizations will either hire someone to mow or get a resident to cut their grass if it gets too tall, Jones said.

For example, the homeowners association in Hilltop Commons in Whiteland has a mowing service come once a week for homes and the developer sends a mower out once per month for vacant lots, association president Lewis Hoffmeyer said.

Local governments most often find out what needs to be mowed when neighbors complain, because they don’t have enough staff to drive up and down streets looking for tall grass every day. Houses that are obviously abandoned get added to a list and code enforcement officers are more likely to make routine checks on those, Greenwood Deputy Mayor Terry McLaughlin said.

Not every complaint gets answered immediately either, since governments need to give people a chance to fix the problem themselves. For example, the county has received 56 complaints about tall grass total and 26 properties were above the 2-foot level. So far this year mowers have been sent to eight of those properties, Mastin said.

When the government has to mow, the fees are much higher because code enforcement officers check the property and send notices, workers mow the property and then clerks bill the owner. If the owner doesn’t pay, local governments will file a lien on the property to make sure they get the money, but that can take years if no one is paying the taxes. For example, Franklin charges $200 minimum to mow a property and was waiting to collect more than $42,000 at the end of 2013. Some of those bills were more than six years old.

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