Ordinance passed by council to address blighted properties

May 27, 2020 | Danielle Eaton

AGAWAM – The Agawam City Council met for another regularly scheduled meeting on May 18 where an ordinance to amend a section of the town’s code to address blighted properties was adopted and a capital improvement program for the coming fiscal years 2021-2025 was adopted.

The meeting was conducted remotely via phone conference with Council President Christopher Johnson conducting the meeting in-person. Johnson began the meeting by reading submitted comments from resident and attorney, Susan Grossberg. Grossberg’s comments, first outlined her experience and stated, “in over 20 years as a bankruptcy and housing court attorney, I dealt with hundreds of properties in foreclosure and represented dozens of tenants in blighted and bank-owned properties.”

Grossberg said she had been excited to see an ordinance Chapter 78 of the town’s code regarding blighted properties “to get in front of our problem and mortgagees failing to maintain REO properties.” However, Grossberg said, “This is a hyper-technical area of law, the legal terminology having very specific definitions.” She said she “was disappointed” to see that the resolution to amend the town code “at several points does not accurately employ these legal terms and has several internal inconsistencies.”

She also said that much of the ordinance is “redundant of the broader and more coherent current state sanitary code.” Grossberg noted one difference, which she said “appears to be an attempt to encourage mortgagees in possession provide a local contact.” This, she said, according to the new amendment would be done “by instituting a $500 fee and register[ing] this local contact with the town.”

However, she questioned if foreclosing banks would be willing to invest the money to do so. “If foreclosing banks do not want to spend money on repairing failed properties, why would they voluntarily spend $500 to register a local contract,” she said. Grossberg also questioned why the penalty for failing to register such a contact would be significantly less than the cost of the fee to register, “starting at $50.”

“If you want someone to do something, you need to make it more expensive for them when they don’t do it. This draft legislation does not, it does the opposite and it is bound to fail in its object,” she stated.

Grossberg also said in her years of experience, the lack of a local contact had not been the problem. “Anyone doing business in the commonwealth has to disclose the registered local agent with the secretary of state’s office and there was always local council appearing on the bank’s behalf in court,” she said.

The problem, she stated, was when out of state firms were hired by banks to complete the repairs needed on such properties. “The problem was that banks hired firms in places like Texas to be in charge of needed repairs,” she said. “Since they were never on site to understand what needed or to vet local contractors, repairs took months to years. The proposed legislation does not carry this problem either.”

Following Grossberg’s comments, the council voted unanimously to reappoint Henry Kozloski to the Community Preservation Act Committee. Kozloski was reappointed for a three-year term that will expire on April 30, 2023.

Next on the agenda was a resolution to adopt the fiscal year 2021-2025 Capital Improvement Program. The general public was given the opportunity to provide comment via a phone number, which was read aloud by Johnson, during the open hearing portion of the resolution.

Mayor William Sapelli then gave a brief statement and explanation. He said the town was “in a really unique situation with this COVID-19 situation with revenues that are going to be coming back to our community, both federal and state.” He said the capital improvement was much needed and the request was “based on the economic conditions that we’re experiencing presently.” He added that “at this particular point in time, we have no idea what the end result is going to be for another few months, and maybe even six months to a year.”

This, he said, factored into what he described as “a very lenient plan on the capital request for this particular year.” City Councilor Cecilia Calabrese questioned if there were any foreseeable expenses related to the coronavirus “that will have a significant impact as far as capital improvements needed to the town.”

Sapelli said, “not at this time” and explained that for several months “right back to March” the town’s department heads “have been keeping daily records” for him and “all expenditures that may be related to this virus, such as overtime in the schools, any additional software needs, technology” and PPE. “So we’re keeping copious records of that and receipts to turn into reimbursements of all the items,” he said.

Councilor Gina Letellier questioned if there were projections as to whether or how much finances and revenues of the town were being impacted by the virus. Sapelli said while “a lot of people are anticipating a 20 percent reduction in those revenues,” there had been few projects as to what that would look like for Agawam.

“It’s really an unknown right now, and as you know and all of us know that, usually this time of year, on a good year, we’re still waiting for those revenue numbers to come in, so you can only imagine what we’re dealing with right now,” he said. “ It’s going to be a challenge and unfortunately, we don’t know what we don’t know.” Sapelli also emphasized that the town was “tightening the belt.” He added that the town may have more information after June 1 when the deadline to pay their taxes hit, as many people were in tough spots financially due to the pandemic and were waiting to pay their taxes.

Next, the council approved the second and final reading of an ordinance to amend chapter 78 of the town code regarding blighted properties. Letellier proposed that the town work with Attorney Grossberg, who provided public comment on the matter. However, a motion to table the amendment was defeated by a vote of 8 to 3. The second reading was approved unanimously.

The city council finished their meeting with some budgetary transfers to assist the fire department “to purchase two, small, unmanned aerial systems/drones” and to allow for the removal and replacement of asbestos floor tiles at Station Two.

The city council will meet again on June 1. After the meeting, the council will meet for a workshop to review the town departments for the budget.

On June 8, the council will host another workshop at 6:30 p.m., where Sapelli and Agawam Public Schools Superintendent Steve Lemanski would present the school’s budget. Johnson explained that “at the end of that presentation, probably at 7:30, on the 8th, we would hold our public hearing on the annual operating budget.” This, he said, would give the council a week until their next meeting on June 15 “to actually do the vote to adopt the budget on June 15.”

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