Buffalo lawmakers look to reform how city collects fees

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)After a News 4 Investigates story on Wednesday about a home that was sold out from under a family for unpaid garbage fees, a number of Buffalo lawmakers are now saying they will look to reform the city’s tax collection efforts.

Lawmakers say they want to bring more money in while helping more homeowners avoid foreclosure. And that could help folks avoid the nightmare that is facing an elderly Riverside couple.

Bob Rabatoy is digging in his heels in the fight to save his home from foreclosure. The Esser Avenue house his daughter Dawn Gonzales bought for Bob and his wife Lillian was sold at a city foreclosure auction back in October and the new owner has already put them on notice: he wants them out.

“It ain’t the beautiful-est house in the world, but it’s ours,” Bob said.

Dawn added, “My mother has Parkinson’s; my father is sick. They don’t want to leave the house; we don’t want them to leave the neighborhood. They know the neighborhood.”

City officials foreclosed and sold the house over $443 in unpaid garbage user fees. See our original report here.

Dawn says she did not know of the foreclosure until she received a notification from the city: after the house was sold.

Housing advocates say the Rabatoys are not alone, and homeowners often claim they did not receive their notices from the city. City officials say they send out at least 15 notices before a property is auctioned, but concede they are not required to show the notices were actually received.

Masten Councilman Demone Smith is sponsoring a measure to improve the city’s collection efforts, while helping property owners to stay in their homes. One of the biggest issues is notification, which can be sent to the wrong address or not delivered at all.

Smith says the reform measure would step up accountability for both collectors, and the property owner.

“Yes, it does need some improvement,” he said. “You can ultimately have somebody going and visit them. Phone calls, tracking down the person until you get some type of contact, instead of just mailing them, and then hoping that somebody reads the mail.”

The reform measure is making its way through the Common Council and would require a homeowner to be served in person. The Council is also looking at a different way of handling delinquent user fees other than foreclosures.

Mayor Byron Brown says he supports any efforts to keep people in their homes.

“Any legislation by the Council that can further improve the process, I certainly welcome. We are always looking for best practices, we are always looking to improve what we do, and so I welcome the Council’s review of this,” Brown said.

Dawn and her parents have hired an attorney, and a state judge has put the sale of their house on hold until the case comes up for a hearing next week.

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