NIAGARA FALLS – Two vacant lots on 24th Street landed on the city’s foreclosure list last week, prompting Jim J. Szwedo, a mayoral candidate, to accuse Mayor Paul A. Dyster’s administration of political retribution.
Szwedo claims the problems started with small parcels he owns at 213 and 217 24th St., after city crews cleaned the lots in 2010.
Szwedo owes nearly $2,000 to the city and the city school district for delinquent taxes and fees dating to 2011.
Prior to any media coverage of his property’s inclusion on the foreclosure list, Szwedo ridiculed Dyster, claiming the work was not necessary because the lots were well maintained and that Dyster was using city resources to go after him.
But Szwedo – one of three candidates who has filed petitions seeking the Republican line in this fall’s mayor’s race for the right to challenge Democrat Dyster – has had cleanup issues and delinquent taxes at other properties as well, based on city and county records obtained by The Buffalo News.
And though Szwedo claimed that the two vacant lots were well maintained, pictures of the lots included in city Department of Public Works records show grass and weeds on part of the property that were more than a foot high before the cleanup occurred.
Szwedo said he has had a landscaping company maintain the lots for years.
“They’ve always been maintained,” he said.
Szwedo said his criticism of the city’s ZOOM cleanup program – which he said he made on a local Internet radio program around the time of the cleanup – was based on what he said was the program’s focus on problems with property owners who lived locally while problems with properties owned by people who live out of the area were ignored.
“Regardless of what Dyster wants people to believe, I’m pretty vocal about the problems that I believe he’s caused in the city of Niagara Falls,” Szwedo said.
Szwedo, who is president of the Niagara Street Business Association, owes a total of $1,940.50 to the city and the city school district on the two parcels, charges from 2011 through 2014, according to records from the City Controller’s Office.
Aside from property taxes, the figure includes an $830 charge assessed by the city for the cleanup five years ago.
Szwedo said he tried to get the city to rescind the cleanup fee. After the city added that charge for the cleanup to his tax bill, which he has refused to pay, Szwedo said he has since tried to pay the annual city and school taxes, but City Hall won’t accept the payments for the portion of the bill that is from property taxes.
Under a City Hall policy, payments must be applied to the oldest debt, according to Dyster.
Though the cleanup dispute originated in 2010, Szwedo last paid Niagara County property taxes on those parcels in 2007. The grass had recently been cut on the lots, which Szwedo showed to a reporter Wednesday afternoon.
On the two 24th Street properties, which together are about a tenth of an acre in size, Szwedo owes the county about $318 in back taxes dating to 2008, according to the Niagara County Treasurer’s Office.
Here’s a look at some issues Szwedo faces and has faced at other properties he owns that are not on the city’s foreclosure list:
• 2197 Seneca Ave. – Nine city cleanup orders were issued between 2006 and 2013, seven of which were not complied with, Dyster said records from the Department of Public Works show. County property taxes totaling $232.50 are owed on the property going back to 2008 through this year, according to the county Treasurer’s Office.
• 2199 Seneca Ave. – Eight cleanup orders were issued from 2006 to 2013, six of which weren’t complied with, according to Dyster. Another $243 in county property taxes are owed from 2008 through this year.
• 419 24th St. – Seven cleanup orders were issued by the city from 2005 to 2013, six of which weren’t complied with. In terms of county taxes, $307 is owed for this year and last year, according to the treasurer’s office. Szwedo sold this piece of land in April for $8,000, according to county records.
In all, Szwedo’s outstanding tax bill totals more than $3,000 owed to the city, school and county for the above-mentioned properties.
In explaining his tax situation, Szwedo said he is a small-business person who is frequently out of town and whose income varies from time to time, which has led to property taxes being occasionally late. He also said that he didn’t pay the county taxes partly because of the possibility the city may end up taking the properties anyway.
He said he also has purchased properties in his neighborhood in order to prevent them from being obtained by someone who wouldn’t take care of them. “I buy them to preserve the neighborhood,” he said.
Szwedo said neighbors often encourage him to acquire available property.
In one case, he said, he was told a property that was trashed by previous tenants was coming available and he spent $10,000 to buy the property and then board it up to avoid future problems.
“Our neighborhood is one of the few, we have a couple-block area that’s actually holding up to a certain extent,” he said. “And it’s because of the fact that we take care of it and the neighbors all know each other.
“If you’re an out-of-state owner, and you own a house in our neighborhood, you better keep it up because the neighbors are very vocal,” Szwedo continued.
Szwedo – who said he plans to pay the taxes owed on the Seneca Avenue lots, which he said were being used as a community garden – said he’s been liquidating the property he owns around the city as fast as he can.
At the time of the cleanup on 213 and 217 24th St., they were owned by Szwedo’s wife, according to county property records, but have since been transferred into Szwedo’s name.
Szwedo said he and his wife were involved in another dispute with the city involving 419 24th St., which he says shows a pattern of behavior on the city’s behalf, though he declined to discuss details.
While some taxes are still outstanding, there also have been a number of properties owned by Szwedo where taxes were delinquent but have since been paid. Three properties on Cudaback Avenue had delinquent taxes in 2011, 2012 and 2013, though those debts were satisfied, according to online records from the County Clerk’s Office.
Szwedo also had three properties on Whitney Avenue with delinquent taxes in 2013 that have since been paid, according to clerk’s office records.
An attorney for Szwedo has filed a formal legal challenge to his properties being included in the foreclosure proceeding, arguing the cleanup charge levied was illegal.
The owners of any properties on the in rem list have the right to redeem the properties by paying all unpaid tax liens by Oct. 9. There is a $150 fee in order to redeem a property from the list.
Dyster, who said he was unaware of any critical comments made by Szwedo, said Szwedo’s legal challenge includes “outrageous claims” that “were factually not true.”
“He’s purchasing vacant lots for land speculation,” Dyster said.