Liens burden owners trying to fix blighted properties

Nov. 30—Jacob Burmood is taking on his biggest project yet. The Kansas City sculptor is renovating an old fire station and training facility in St. Joseph, while thousands of dollars in liens hang over his head.

The property, located at 1801 Felix St., looks unrecognizable compared to a year ago. The vines growing up the five-story tower are gone and overgrowth throughout the yard has been trimmed back.

Instead, sculptures stand guard throughout the property. Burmood and his wife live in what used to be the office of the fire station, and the fire truck bay has turned into his sculpting studio. Burmood is saving money to turn the training tower into a unique apartment with each floor as its own room.

"I've been looking for a place that I could use as a home studio," Burmood said. "I've been a sculptor for about three and a half years. I had been living for that amount of time in a warehouse in Kansas City, but I was leasing it, and I really wanted to invest in something that was mine. This just kind of became available when I was ready to move out."

But like many unkempt properties in St. Joseph, it came with $5,500 worth of liens.

Properties with violations typically are given a notice to fix the problem, whether it's trash or debris in the yard or overgrown vegetation. If the owner doesn't remedy the issue, the city bills him or her for any maintenance to clean up the property. If the owner then refuses to pay the bill, a lien is placed on the property. The purpose of the lien is to make it more difficult for the current owner to sell the property, creating an incentive to pay off the liens. But it's not always effective, since liens can transfer ownership.

"It's not like a tax sale property that at the time of sale you have to satisfy back taxes owed," said Clint Thompson, the community development and planning director with the city of St. Joseph. "It continues with the property until either someone decides to pay the city for the amount owed or the city forgives an amount."

This is why the St. Joseph City Council often abates liens when a responsible owner buys a blighted property and the person who incurred the liens can't be found or has died.

"We have no method really of collecting that particular amount owed, so the opportunity of seeing infill development on a lot in an older neighborhood and put that property back in the tax rolls, it's in the best interest of the city in those situations to be able to collect new taxes on that property," Thompson said.

If a property owner owes a significant amount of liens and the city knows who the person is, it will try and recoup the lost expenses through lawsuits.

"If we can track down the individual, we can actually go through seeking some type of repayment from an individual through the court system," Thompson said. "The majority of these transactions are the result of individuals that we no longer can track down."

To ensure new owners take care of their properties, the city council has started to add agreements to any lien abatements that puts the liens back on the property if a violation occurs, regardless of if the new owner is responsible for the previous liens or not.

Liens on Burmood's property go back to 2012. Since then, the $5,500 has been transferred to two owners who have no responsibility for the violations.

"It puts the responsibility on the party that's not responsible for the infractions," Burmood said. "I think that there's probably a better way to handle it. I know the intention is that it prevents the owner from selling the property, but those liens kind of leapfrogged over to me because the last owner who is selling me the building wasn't responsible for those liens either."

At a recent city council meeting, the liens on Burmood's property were abated. But he's worried a single violation while he's renovating his unique buildings will force him to pay $5,500.

"I don't think that it's fair to make the new owner responsible for past infractions," Burmood said. "I'm 100% willing to take responsibility for myself and my actions, but something that happened over the course of years before I ever even knew this place existed is now put on me if I have any kind of issue."

Quinn Ritzdorf can be reached at