BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – It was December, 2013: the City of Buffalo had foreclosed on the house Dawn Gonzales and her husband bought for Dawn’s parents on Esser Avenue, and the property was sold at an In Rem auction, two months earlier, to cover a $440 bill for unpaid garbage user fees.
The New Jersey investor who bought the property sent a relative to the house and told Dawn’s parents, Lillian and Bob Rabatoy, they would have to start paying rent or move.
Gonzales was furious when she contacted Call 4 Action, “My mother has Parkinsons, my father is sick. They don’t want to leave the house.”
The Rabatoys were all packed up but had no place to go, then shortly after the Call 4 Action story aired, one of Buffalo’s prominent law firms took their case, pro bono. After more than two years of uncertainty the Rabatoys’ ordeal ended and the case was settled, returning the property to the Gonzales’.
But there was a confidentiality agreement attached to the settlement, precluding anyone connected to the case from discussing the terms, although court records show the New Jersey investor was compensated for his troubles.
“User fees really are the nemesis of the whole system at this point,” said Buffalo attorney Loran Bommer who is a seasoned veteran at representing property owners whose homes or businesses have landed in foreclosure.
The city’s user fees are a hidden danger to the unschooled, even to the banks, according to Bommer, “When it is all said and done the bank, after I speak to them, they will look at me and say, ‘what is a user fee? Why don’t we know about this? Where did this come from?’”
Bommer said the garbage user fee is often a mystery because it is paid separately from property taxes, and even at separate windows at City Hall. A simple solution, said Bommer, would be a written reminder on individual tax bills that user fees have to be paid separately from taxes.
“If there was that line item on the tax bill that said, don’t forget your user fee, I think that would solve at least 50% of the cases that go into court after the In Rem auction process.”
City officials have made some changes in their foreclosure process, in recent years. Councilmembers now try to notify all homeowners whose properties are on the auction block in their respective districts, and officials wait a little longer before foreclosing due to unpaid user fees.
But the safety net that is supposed to protect property owners from unnecessary foreclosure still has a big hole in it–and it needs a patch.