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Detroit Ombudsman says missing paperwork hampers efforts to fight blight, collect taxes

Detroit Skyline
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Detroit skyline

Detroit Ombudsman Bruce Simpson says the city’s property market continues to be plagued by bad and missing paperwork.

In his annual address to the Detroit City Council on Thursday, Simpson laid out a series of recommendations and detailed his department’s work fielding citizen complaints against various city departments.

When it comes to property transfers, Simpson said one major issue is that Michigan doesn’t require deeds to be filed when a property changes ownership. He said that creates a nightmare when it comes to determining ownership, and enforcing blight ordinances.

“It aids speculators and investors that refuse to take care of their property,” Simpson said. “As a result, we're forced to see this blight within our communities when we can't identify the correct owner.”

Simpson said that many Detroit property owners also don’t file property transfer affidavits, which are required by state law. He said that results in more confusion, and the city is losing out on property tax revenue as a result.

“We should receive property tax revenue based on the true taxable value of the property, which speculators and investors rarely pay,” Simpson said. “It's a loophole they've been taking advantage of for years.”

Simpson said he’s asked the city assessor’s office to calculate how much revenue the city has lost since its 2013 municipal bankruptcy due to people failing to file the transfer affidavits. He said he doesn’t have that number yet, but will share it with the Council when he does.

Another one of Simpson’s recommendations: open up existing city housing and education programs to Detroit police officers. He said that’s one way to encourage more officers to live in the city, and help the department’s troubles with retention.

“We know that residency requirements are no longer in place and changing that law would be a difficult task,” Simpson said. “However, other municipalities are benefiting from the talent we are losing.”

Simpson said the top two city departments for citizen complaints are Buildings, Safety and Engineering, and the Detroit Land Bank. He said his office received more than 1,200 complaints about both departments over the past year.

BSEED is in charge of code enforcement, while the Land Bank handles Detroit’s huge inventory of vacant properties.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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