The Boston Globe
BYLINE: By John Laidler, Globe Correspondent
Lynn officials say a new tool aimed at bolstering the city s collection of unpaid fines is beginning to reap dividends.
In April 2010, the city adopted a state law that allows municipalities to add to the owner s property tax bill any unpaid fines for sanitary, housing, and snow removal violations, and to place a lien on the properties.
Since Lynn began making use of the law early this year, officials say efforts to collect fines have received a noticeable boost.
Most cities and towns have been writing citations for years, but the collection rate was abysmal, said Michael J. Donovan, the city s director of inspectional services and building commissioner. You couldn t get people even to pay much attention to them because there was not a mechanism to enforce it other than taking them to court, which was time consuming and expensive.
But, he said, in Lynn now, People are coming in because they are getting notices. When it says we are going to put this on your property tax if you don t come in, people come.
Donovan said that from 2006 through 2011, the city collected just 31 percent, or $749,000 out of $2.4 million in fines handed for sanitary, housing, and snow removal violations. He predicted the city eventually will collect close to 100 percent of all fines that are not appealed.
The new system will also help deter property owners from committing violations, Donovan said, because now they know that the fine means something. They just can t throw the ticket away.
That is a result the city would welcome.
We don t want to fine people, Donovan said. We would rather correct the problem and have you shovel your sidewalk or cut your grass or repair your front steps.
Under the law, anyone cited has 21 days to pay the fine or appeal to a city hearing officer the city s assistant parking director was designated for that role. If the fine remains unpaid after 21 days and no hearing is requested, the city must give the owner another 14-day window to appeal.
If no appeal is filed within 30 days, the city can add the unpaid fine plus penalties to the owner s property tax bill, and to attach a lien on the property.
Donovan said in all cases, the city will add the unpaid fines to property tax bills. He said in a small percentage of cases those involving fines exceeding $500 and where there is a potential for the property to change hands it will also place a lien on the property.
If a fine is appealed, the hearing officer will render a decision, which the property owner can then appeal to district court.
Peter M. Caron, the city s director of assessing, said that starting this year, outstanding fines will be placed on third-quarter tax bills, which are mailed at the end of December. He said he is now exploring the feasibility of also adding them to the first- or second-quarter bills.
Every dollar we are due and can actually collect means we need that much less money in taxes to operate the city, Caron said.
Robert Bliss, spokesman for the state Department of Revenue, said that his agency does not maintain a list of cities and towns that have adopted the state law. But he said the law, which the Legislature enacted in early 2010, is not widely used at this point.
Bliss noted that the law is a local-option measure.
It s really up to a community to decide whether they want to adopt it or consider adopting it, he said.
Well before the Legislature passed the law, the city of Lowell secured a special act in 2002 that gave it similar enforcement tools. The act allows the city to place liens on properties with outstanding fines, fees, or other charges, and if they are still not paid, to add them to the owner s property tax bill.
The city only began using the special act after a reorganization two years ago of its Development Services office, which oversees inspections. But in that time, it has seen some significant results, Kendra Amaral, deputy director of the city s Department of Planning and Development, said by e-mail.
Since March 24, 2011, Development Services in Lowell recorded more than 300 municipal liens for violations issued between Jan. 1, 2010, and Feb. 1, 2011. Most of them were for unpaid fines and fees relating to the ordinance requiring registration of vacant and foreclosed properties, and of rules governing unregistered motor vehicles, and trash and recycling.
Since the first recording of the liens, Lowell has collected $87,355 in previously unpaid fines and fees, according to Amaral. She said the threat of liens resulted in the additional collection of more than $430,000 in unpaid fines for violations of the vacant/foreclosure property ordinance.
In this fiscal year, our collection of fines for property maintenance and trash and recycling has increased seven-fold, and we have doubled collection on vacant/foreclosure ordinance fees and fines to over $82,000 in this fiscal year alone, Amaral said.
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