Status of Arlington fines caught up in confusion

Published 12:02 am Wednesday, August 22, 2012

NATCHEZ — A flurry of confusion surrounding the thousands of dollars in fines owed on historic Arlington has left officials taking a step back to figure out the best way to collect the money.

Mayor Butch Brown asked Municipal Court Judge Jim Blough at the aldermen’s Aug. 14 meeting if the $100-a-day fine, totaling approximately $48,000, had been collected per Blough’s order in the December 2009 case in which Blough found Arlington’s owner, Dr. Thomas Vaughn of Jackson, guilty of demolition by neglect.

Blough replied there was no $48,000 in assessments, only $2,500 that was for the grass cutting done by public works.

Email newsletter signup

That conversation led to a great deal of confusion on what fines were owed, how they were being calculated and to whom the fines were owed.

Brown said Tuesday that despite the confusion and the inactivity of trying to collect the fines, he and the board of aldermen would be aggressively seeking as much compensation due to the city as possible.

“They city attorney and any others we need to employ to that will take care of that effort and pursue it with vigor and do it promptly and in a timely fashion,” Brown said.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said he and Brown have discussed Arlington but have had to take a step back to explore the city’s options after the confusion. Carby said, in his opinion, pursuing the matter in chancery court would probably be the best solution and would do that as soon as the aldermen directs him to do so.

“The things the city has done have been well intentioned but so far have not gotten us the results we’re looking for, which is to have Arlington secured and maintained and put in a position that it can be salvaged,” he said.

“We really need to get Dr. Vaughn’s attention, and we have not gotten it so far,” Carby said.

The $100-a-day fine stems from state statute that provides relief for the city to collect fines on demolition by neglect properties, former city planner Bob Nix said Tuesday.

Nix said he calculated the fines based on the most obvious and convenient date available to the city, the date when Blough found Vaughn guilty.

Blough fined Vaughn approximately $200 for the charge, which was not sufficient enough to get Vaughn’s attention, Nix said.

Blough said this week he and former building inspector Paul Dawes were assured prior to proceeding with the case that the city had $44,000-$45,000 to pursue the case in 2009.

Vaughn did not comply with the list of repairs and timeline set forth by the court. Public works cut the grass on the property, and a tax lien was filed for the costs. The city then hired a towing company to remove three large vehicles from the property and allowed the company to satisfy costs through salvaging and selling the vehicles. The city, therefore, could not apply a tax lien to the costs.

Blough said the city obtained estimates to board up Arlington, one of which was $22,500 for the first floor only, and the city then opted to not spend that much money to board up the house.

No further action has been taken in municipal court by the city.

Nix informed the aldermen in April that since Blough’s ruling in 2009, the $100-per-day fine allowed by state law had accumulated to approximately $43,000. Nix said then the city may seek the fines in civil court or a higher court.

At the request of Nix, the aldermen unanimously voted to instruct an attorney to seek in court the $43,000 in fines from Vaughn through court action. The city also wanted a court to order the owner to repair the national landmark.

Nix said in April city prosecutor Lisa Jordan Dale, who works for Blough, would handle the case. Dale said no one from the city contacted her about proceeding with the Arlington case after the aldermen voted on the matter.

As a city court prosecutor, Dale said her job would not entail prosecuting code violations in chancery court, which was the suggested court at the time. Dale said that duty would fall on the city attorney.

“I don’t think the board can order me or direct me to do that because that is a different role and capacity than my job,” Dale said. “They could hire me as a private attorney, but I have never known (a city prosecutor) to prosecute anyone anywhere except in municipal court.”

Dale said furthermore, if her services were requested by the city, she would need some type of documentation from the mayor or board of aldermen noting the violation because she does not have the authority to proceed with a case on her own.

The city, Brown said, will seek every remedy at its legal disposal to properly fine and collect from Vaughn.

“He has blatantly disregarded the order of the court, appeals of the community, denying service of process and evading the law, and now this mayor and this administration are going to pursue it with vigor,” he said