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Assessed real estate valuation for property in the City of Salem from 2019 to 2020 dropped for the first time in at least 20 years, according to documents obtained from the Dent County Clerk’s office through a public records request.

Real estate value was $38.333 million as reported in 2020, down from $38.339 million in 2019. While the drop is a small percentage, the fact that it dropped at all is a trend no community wants to see and one that has continued over the past decade.

• To see Salem ordinances, including those for public nuisances and derelict properties, go to salemmo.com or directly to https://www.ecode360.com/SA3424

• To see the 2018 three-part series by The Salem News on public nuisances and derelict properties.

From 2000 to 2010, real estate valuation climbed from $25.961 million to $35.725 million, an average of about $888,000 per year. From 2011 to 2020, that valuation increased from $36.045 million to $38.333 million, an average of just $229,000 per year.

While there are other factors involved in assessed real estate valuation, the trend in declining valuations, both homes and business, are evident.

Those decreases in 2020 hit Salem residents and business owners in the pocketbook. A property tax levy of 67.26 cents per $100 of assessed valuation for 2020 was established by the board of aldermen at a special meeting in August of 2020, an increase of 3 percent. The 2019 rate was 65.22 cents. City clerk Mary Happel told the board of aldermen in that meeting that the city had been notified by the state auditor that, due to a decrease in Salem’s assessed valuation, the rate would have to increase to 67.26 cents to maintain the same amount of revenue for the city and meet its budget requirements. Aldermen then passed the increase in the levy.

The city’s total assessed valuation decreased to $48.3 million in 2020 from $49 million the year before, according to the state auditor, and that number included real estate and personal property, which also declined.

What to do about the continued decline in real estate values and derelict properties, and lack of updated or enforcement of city ordinances that help drive values down, has been more than a decades-long futile effort for the community.

Business leader after business leader and private property owner after private property owner have approached the city for help, often in open session. City leaders have voiced support, but little has been done by them to help alleviate the problem or force some property owners to help turn the trend around.

In August of 2018, The Salem News published a three-part series on public property nuisances and dangerous and derelict private properties. The series dealt with outdated city ordinances regarding nuisance and dangerous properties, lack of enforcement, what was being done at the time to deal with the ordinances and plans in the future to combat the problem.

As part of the series, The Salem News visited properties at the request of citizens who complained the city was not doing enough to protect their property values. The Salem News witnessed rotting furniture discarded in yards, piles of trash and debris next to homes, abandoned buildings that were infested with animals, including feral cats, and homes and buildings that appeared to be beyond repair and in need of demolition.

The Salem News allowed residents to remain anonymous in the series, as those citizens cited fear of retribution by neighbors and the city.

“I retired and came down here on purpose because I spent my childhood down here at Montauk and the river, and I always wanted to come back and live here to see if I would like it,” one of the neighbors said. “Now, it’s only been one horrible experience after another. Now I’m ready to leave again. This is not worth it. If you go down Franklin (Street) you’ll see eight or nine nice houses for sale, but they won’t sell because the crappy ones are right there, too.”

Earlier, in May of 2018, city administrator Ray Walden suggested to the board of aldermen that revised nuisance ordinances be addressed through a workshop or meeting. That process moved slowly and has perhaps fizzled out. Camm Seay, city attorney at the time, worked with Cunningham, Vogel & Rost – a law firm out of St. Louis that specializes in local government work – over the next year to rewrite the city ordinances to make them stronger and bring them into state compliance.

It was announced in June of 2019 that public workshops would be held to make the proposed ordinances known, according to a story in the June 3, 2019 edition of The Salem News. Seay said at the time the proposed ordinances – at a cost of $20,000 over three years – would be made public before the workshops.

The first of the proposed public meetings was scheduled for the day after Labor Day in 2019, allowing community members to voice their opinions and learn about current enforcement and ordinances. The proposed ordinances were to be discussed at a subsequent meeting, then put in their final form.

“We’ve got new ordinances in hand that can be tweaked,” Walden told aldermen at an August 2019 meeting. He added that before the new ordinances would be put into place, the idea was to better educate aldermen and the public at large on existing ordinances and find out issues that need to be addressed.

The proposal seems to have dropped off the table.

“It failed due to the failure of our city administrator (Walden) to set up those public meetings, which were discussed in open session and approved by the aldermen,” Seay said when contacted this week by The Salem News. “Then there was no action on it (proposed ordinances). The city did nothing.”

Seay served as city attorney until October of 2019. He said he is not aware of any action on the proposed ordinances since his departure. There are no new or revised ordinances on the books, according to the city’s online ordinances on ecode360.com. However, those ordinances have not been updated since July 24, 2017, according to the site. A copy of the ordinances in the hands of the city’s planning and zoning committee are even older, dated August of 2015.

The city has spent the past 31 months – since Walden brought up revisions at a May 2018 board meeting – without a real plan or revised ordinances to help stop the trend of lower assessed property values.

There are members of the community who see the need and are addressing it.

There were 234 vacant housing units in the city as of August 2020, according to a report from City of Salem Economic Development Director Sally Burbridge given at an August meeting of the Salem Rotary Club. Only 33 percent of those homes are for rent, meaning about 157 are unavailable for rental, likely due to their poor condition.

There are several privately funded programs that are attempting to address this. The Salem Housing Authority is using its funds to renovate dilapidated houses and sell them to low income or elderly residents. Any profit made will be put back into the program. The plan calls for 2-3 homes a year over 10 years. One home is completed and a second one is being renovated now. The construction trades program at Salem High School is also doing repair work on Salem homes.

The city has a proposal being considered that would split the cost of demolition of derelict property deemed beyond repair. The cost would be split 50-50 between the city and the owner, or 100 percent by the city if the owner deeds the property to the city.

Turning around the decline in property values in Salem has become a passion for developer and property owner Sherm Odom, who in 2020 personally assessed virtually all of the property in Salem, driving every street. He found 51 properties in east Salem and 49 in west Salem that were in need of significant repair or tearing down. Of those 100 properties, only 28 were occupied and 37 have not had electric service in over a year.

There were also 13 commercial properties in need of significant repair with little or no value, his study concluded.

“When that series (August 2018 in The Salem News) was published I wondered how many of those properties are there?” Odom said. “Do we really know? How big is the problem? I wanted a number to put on it and gradually keep track of it.

“Honestly the number was about what I thought was out there, but we needed to verify it. It was nothing official that we did, just from a windshield inspection, visual, as we drove every street in town. But it shows the scope of the problem. Those homes and businesses did not compliment the neighborhood, and that’s what we went on. If we had gotten out and looked inside, at foundations, other structural things, that number would not go down, there would be more. It is a big, big problem.”

Odom not only wanted to identify the problem structures, but monitor them to see further decline or improvement. He did another run through town to look at all of the properties on Thanksgiving, 2020. He found nine that had been remodeled or in the process and three that had been or were being torn down.

Odom said the 2018 series in The Salem News and subsequent discussion among city leadership brought more community awareness to the issue of declining property values, and some people took action on their own properties.

However, a combination of community activism and city leadership, along with updated city codes and enforcement, are likely needed if the trend is to be reversed. It is also a cultural and demographic issue, with some residents unwilling or financially unable to make improvements to property.