Topeka may need to win over opponents of abandoned property bill to avoid Brownback veto

January 15, 2017

By Jonathan Shorman

For years, Kansas City Sen. David Haley has vehemently opposed legislation to make it easier for cities to gain control of abandoned property.

The city of Topeka plans to introduce this year’s version in the coming week, and if it wants the anti-blight measure to become law it may need Haley’s support. Gov. Sam Brownback, who vetoed last year’s bill, has told bill supporters to reach an agreement with opponents.

The governor, a Republican, singled out Haley, a Democrat, as someone who supporters should approach.

In an interview, Haley spoke of a family he knows to illustrate what he views as the bill’s pitfalls. The family’s mother has been in a nursing home since this summer, and her sons live out of state, he said. Meanwhile, the family home sits empty and unmaintained.

Last year’s bill would have expanded the definition of abandoned residential property to include houses that have been unoccupied for at least a year and have a blighting influence on surrounding property. Under current law, residential property must be delinquent on property taxes for two years and have been unoccupied for 90 days to be considered abandoned.

The family mentioned by Haley isn’t wealthy. Haley said taxes might not have been paid for the past year and a half or two years.

The house, as described by Haley, might already qualify as abandoned property under existing law if the owner is two years delinquent on taxes. He said neither son wants to come to Kansas to fight for their mother’s property and he fears the house could eventually be seized under the legislation.

Still, he said he could potentially support a bill with strong protections.

“As long as there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect a marginal property owner from government abuse, like eminent domain. Eminent domain, even, has provisions,” Haley said, noting that eminent domain — the constitutional clause that allows the government to take private property for public use — requires compensation.

The bill’s proponents argue they’ve included safeguards, have taken suggestions from opponents and remain open to further changes. This year’s version adds a requirement that owners of properties around the abandoned property receive notice before action is taken. Neighborhood associations would also receive notice.

Topeka has made the abandoned property bill a top legislative priority. Several hundred vacant houses sit throughout the city. The city has demolished some of the houses.

“I think it’s reached that level where people are very much aware and understand it,” Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast said. “And it’s not an urban issue – the cities of two and three thousand have dilapidated houses and they have fewer resources than big cities.”

The legislation passed with healthy margins last year, 79-44 in the House and 32-8 in the Senate. But supporters were unable to overcome Brownback’s veto. The governor said at the time that the legislation’s goal of creating safer communities was laudable but presented opportunities for abuse.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who supports the bill, said Brownback vetoed it, in part, because he was angry at Shawnee County lawmakers over efforts to protect the Docking State Office Building from demolition. The governor’s public statements regarding the veto have made no mention of Docking.

Brownback hasn’t provided specific provisions or safeguards he wants included in the legislation. Instead, he’s essentially told supporters and opponents to work it out among themselves.

His office has also noted concern within the state’s black communities over the bill and has indicated Brownback would be more likely to support the bill if the measure has the support of Haley and Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, along with Kenya Cox, director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission.

“But you had people, David Haley in KCK and a lot of the inner-city Wichita representatives strongly opposed to it,” Brownback told The Topeka Capital-Journal editorial advisory board last week. “They should talk to them. They should work out: ‘What is your concern? Why are you so strongly opposed to this?’ And work that out.

“And that’s what I’ve been urging people to do because that’s how you’ll get to a longer-term solution. And these are people who represent several of those key districts that are strongly opposed to it.”

Whitney Damron, a lobbyist for the city of Topeka, plans to offer the bill in the Senate Ethics, Elections and Local Government Committee, potentially as early as Tuesday. He said the notice requirement for neighbors and neighborhood associations was added after a suggestion from Cox.

Hensley predicted Brownback will sign off on the legislation in 2017. He also indicated he believes the bill will move smoothly through the legislative process.

“Abandoned properties which are owned by typically-absent landlords are blight on the neighborhood,” Hensley said. “People who are victimized by abandoned properties are the neighbors who live in those communities, and so I think it’s very important to them.”

Haley said he does want to eradicate blight. He added he is looking for middle ground that will appease both his and the governor’s concerns.

Most lawmakers representing inner cities voted against the bill last year, he said. Haley acknowledged they were in the minority in their opposition, but said they understand the real-life situations that can lead to properties being seen as abandoned.

“We’re not talking about things that happen once in a blue moon,” Haley said.

This article was originally published on the Topeka Capital-Journal website, here.