Monday, November 9, 2009
Help Me Howard: $31,000 Lien
Her husband got sick and was dying. A driver smashed into her fence damaging it. Then, when a Miami Gardens woman thought things couldn't get worse, the city fined her, threatened her with a $31,000 lien and said they could foreclose on their house. She called Help Me Howard, but as Patrick Fraser found out, this time a city was willing to help, instead of hurt a resident.
WSVN -- Johnnie Mae married Willie a long time ago, back when every picture was black and white.
Johnnie Mae Edwards: "We had four boys and one girl, and we did things together, traveled a little bit, like any other family."
But after 51 years of marriage, Willie got sick and died.
Johnnie Mae Edwards: "I had been with him for a long time and just missing him, you know, not being there."
And Johnnie Mae certainly could use Willie to help with her latest headache.
Johnnie Mae Edwards: "It is tough, it is tough. It's so tough that I cried, and I sit in my house like I'm living in a communist place."
The trouble began when a motorcycle crashed into Johnnie Mae's fence, then a Miami Gardens code enforcement officer fined Johnnie Mae $250 for not fixing the fence.
Johnnie Mae Edwards: "I asked many people, would they fix my fence? 'No, I won't come in Miami Gardens.' Miami Gardens is too tough, they got too tough of rules."
Johnnie Mae didn't have the $250 to pay the fine, so a code enforcement officer filled out some paperwork and, in four months, jacked the fine from $250 to, we'll let Johnnie Mae tell you.
Johnnie Mae Edwards: "$31,750."
And if she couldn't pay the $31,000 lien, the city wrote that they could foreclose on the property, but instead of frightening Johnnie Mae, the move infuriated her.
Johnnie Mae Edwards: "I don't care, I want it known. $31,750 for a piece of fence? For this piece of fence. No, I'm not going to let them get away with it."
Johnnie Mae picked up the phone and called the city. When that didn't work, she went to the top.
Johnnie Mae Edwards: "Many times I even asked to speak to the mayor. They won't let me speak to her."
A friend heard about her problems and fixed her fence, but Johnnie Mae says that doesn't eliminate her problem with city hall.
Johnnie Mae Edwards: "What I'm trying to do is keep anybody else from going through what I'm going through, and losing their home, for someone to put a $31,750 lien on your house for a $250 fine."
Well, Howard, if you can't pay $250, why does a government agency even bother to jack to up to $31,000 when the people they are going after are the ones paying their government salaries?
Howard Finkelstein: "These escalating fines were designed for people who can pay and refuse to fix the problem. They were not created for people struggling to survive. Governments have to follow the law, but they also have the right to use discretion, show compassion and cut the fines."
Give Miami Gardens credit. When I spoke to code enforcement they told me they had wiped out the request for the $31,000 lien and reduced it to $310. When I told them Johnnie Mae didn't have $310, they said she might qualify for their lien amnesty program.
I then went with her to Miami Gardens, where a spokesperson had told me our job is to work with it's people, not against them, and guess what, they did what they promised. Under the city's plan, Johnnie Mae just paid 5 percent of the lien. It went from $31,000 to $310 down to $72.50.
Johnnie Mae Edwards: "That was nice of the city to do. Yes, it was."
Most government agencies don't have a lien amnesty program, maybe they should copy Miami Gardens because there are a lot of Johnnie Maes out there who need some help.
Johnnie Mae Edwards: "I appreciate what Channel 7 did for me because I didn't know what to do. $31,000, that's a lot of money for a fence."
But why did a code enforcement officer even bother to jack the fines up to $31,000? Well, city officials told me they have to do that after someone doesn't pay. What they didn't have to do is what the city did, lower the fine to an amount Johnnie Mae could afford. The city would never have gotten $31,000. At least they got something.
A problem left you feeling fenced in? Everything will be fine, just "lien" on us. We will try to get you amnesty, and sometimes that's what we are worth.