LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The township has billed properties that have been abandoned since Hurricane Sandy or are vacant and in foreclosure a total of $19,264 for mowing and maintenance services in 2013, records show.
Township officials say the billing is routine, but because many of those getting billed were homeowners affected by Sandy, the practice has rankled the targeted homeowners, some of whom say they can’t afford to repair their properties, much less cut their grass.
Those who’ve been billed are also irritated to learn that every bill — be it for $6.25 or $612.50 in labor costs — carries a $100 administrative fee.
Owners are also charged in a section titled “other,” which is for equipment, assistant township Administrator Michael Fromosky said. Those charges range from $65 to $775, according to copies of the bills.
Documents obtained by The Press of Atlantic City show the township billed owners of vacant homes for services, including mowing, weed-whacking and debris cleanup.
Fromosky, in an email, wrote that the lawn maintenance bills weren’t in response to Sandy, but a regular practice. In 2012, he wrote, the bills totaled $18,038. The township billed 67 homes for the services last year and 70 this year, Fromosky said.
Bruce Schmalbach is one of the homeowners who was billed $262.50 for grass cutting and weed-whacking of his entire property on West Boat Drive, according to the bill.
Schmalbach said his daughter Kelly has lived in the home and had been making the mortgage payments for the last four years until the storm last October.
Schmalbach said his daughter remains displaced from the home since Sandy and is living in neighboring Tuckerton.
“I think it’s wrong, but by the same token the houses got to look to decent. There’s a lot of houses that are in real bad shape down there,” Schmalbach said of the bill from the township.
Many homes in the Mystic Island section of the township sat untouched and littered with debris in the months after Sandy and in January the township Committee passed a resolution to allow storm debris removal to take place on private properties without obtaining the permission of the property owners.
Officials stressed that they did not want the properties to turn into eyesores in the community. Many of the properties included in the bills for 2013 are homes in the Mystic Island section. Many of the phones in these homes have been disconnected.
Some of the homes that have been cited and fined are lived in and others are abandoned for any number of reasons including Sandy or foreclosure, Fromosky said. Some of the bills have been paid, but some have not.
The homeowner is billed for each service and multiple billing dates would be for multiple visits, he added.
The fees are set by township ordinance, and are set to encourage property owners to maintain their own properties, Fromosky wrote.
In October, Geri DeMedici-Lentz and her husband, Scott, turned over the keys to the bank for their storm-damaged home on Calabreeze Way.
The couple said they had been getting bills throughout the year for lawn-mowing services conducted by the township.
The Lentzes never returned to their home after the storm and said the last thing they were thinking about was mowing their lawn as they fought with their insurance company.
Fromosky wrote that the properties are not randomly chosen by the township. Instead, the process begins with complaints from neighbors that are investigated by the township code enforcement officer, he said. A violation notice is issued to the homeowner with a time period to become compliant and if the work is not completed, the code enforcement officer issues a work order to the public works department for the work to be completed, according to Fromosky.
A letter with the billing information is then issued from Fromosky’s office, he said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency does not award funding to towns to conduct regular maintenance on properties, Fromosky wrote in an email. Following the storm, the township received $34,000 to assist with debris removal but there is no money for cutting lawns or securing otherwise unsafe properties, he stated.
This is not a new problem created by Sandy, and not a FEMA or state responsibility, but has been a problem for many years and many of the properties are repeat violators, according to Fromosky.
One of the properties is the home of Harold H. Brandmahl Jr. on Lake Champlain Drive, which has been sitting untouched for several years. Brandmahl has been dead for four years and the bank owns the property now, said his father, Harold Brandmahl.
“We have nothing to do with it. There was no will and no one in charge of the estate,” he said.
Fromosky said he is sure that other towns handle private property maintenance in the same manner.
Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora said his town will not handle the issue in the same way and each property will be looked at individually.
If a bank has foreclosed on a home then they need to get the properties cleaned up and the township will take action, Spodofora said.
“But I am not going to go in there and make things more difficult for people. I really don’t want to go in there and start fining people. We are extremely sensitive to the fact that a lot of these people have not been able to clean up and get back into their homes,” Spodofora said of the homes still empty from Sandy.
Spodofora said the township will only act on properties where they feel they have to. Many owners are still fighting with insurance companies and have been afraid to touch anything at their property before the process is complete.
“I am starting to get complaints from residents in the Beach Haven West that have moved back in and want some of the other properties cleaned up. But people who are still not home are coming into my office all the time and they’re at their wits’ end,” he said.
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