VERNON — After seeing crime rise and property values drop, Jennings County officials say they have set the stage to turn things around at the 4,000-lot Country Squire Lakes subdivision off State Road 7 north of North Vernon.
By turning over their jurisdiction of more than 1,200 foreclosed lots to court-appointed receiver Mike Miller, the Jennings County commissioners hope to get those properties back on the tax rolls, commissioners chairman Matt Sporleder said.
The change also will help bring a significant drop in crime at the Geneva township subdivision within three years, Jennings County Sheriff Gary Driver said.
Because at least half of all daily calls answered by Jennings County deputies are to Country Squire Lakes, the reduction in crime should be news welcomed by all Jennings County residents, Driver said.
Before unanimously approving the transfer, the commissioners first removed a clause that gives discretion to a new homeowners association in dealing with residents who break neighborhood covenants.
Those rules should apply to everyone, Sporleder said, adding that type of discretion was partly responsible for many current problems at the subdivision.
Shortly after the subdivision’s former community association went into receivership last April, businessman and former three-term Circuit Court Judge Mike Miller was given temporary control of the foreclosed properties.
Miller, who also was a partner in the North Vernon-based CPX Inc. before selling his interests, is expected to receive deeds for those properties May 9 as a result of Thursday’s vote.
Working with attorneys Larry Greathouse and Jack Gay, Miller plans to invest at least $150,000 into cleaning up those properties this year, he said.
For decades, most Country Squire Lakes residents didn’t see officers patrolling their streets because police could not enforce traffic laws in a private community.But on July 1, 2013, both county and state police officers were given jurisdiction to patrol three main subdivision thoroughfares: Country Manor Boulevard, Country Manor Way and Foxmoor Drive.When the Jennings County Highway Department later was invited to maintain eight additional miles of side roads, that gave police authority to patrol those streets as well, Driver said.
The last formal resistance to increasing the law enforcement presence ended last spring when the former CSL community association was dissolved, the sheriff said.
“We now have the run of the whole place,” said Driver, who told the commissioners there are about a dozen ongoing drug investigations focused on the community.
Although such investigations in any community could take more than a year before arrests are made, both state and county authorities say a number of drug raids are imminent, Driver said.
Once the cleanup and arrests begin, Country Squire Lakes will no longer be considered a safe haven for thieves and drug dealers, Gay said.
“They’ll leave on their own — like rats from a sinking ship,” the North Vernon attorney said.
Impact on poor
During a Jan. 14 hearing, a number of Country Squire Lakes residents expressed concern that elderly residents on fixed incomes might be forced out of their homes under Miller’s management.In response, Gay said manufactured housing will still be allowed at Country Squire Lakes and there are no plans to start raising current rates — such as for rent and wastewater fees.The majority of the properties that were transferred over to Miller are vacant lots, while the others are unoccupied or considered to have uninhabitable housing, Sporleder said.
In addition, a number of Jennings County churches have offered to come to the subdivision to help the poor and elderly fix up their homes, Driver said.
Both Driver and county commissioner Dave Lane expressed concern for the poor during the Jan. 14 meeting.
But on Thursday, both men said they no longer fear that the low-income elderly will suffer due to the upcoming changes.
Sporleder admits he has mixed feelings regarding long-time subdivision residents on fixed incomes.
While he said he sympathizes with those bilked out of money by earlier broken promises of upkeep and improvements, he said those same people knew they would be required to pay dues when they moved into the subdivision.
“If you don’t want to pay the dues, you should have never bought into a homeowners association,” Sporleder said.
In addition, he said the same people who now worry about paying out more money will likely change their tune when their property values begin to increase.
“Things are finally going in the right direction, and I think the majority are going to be very happy,” Sporleder said.
Property values sink
In 2003, the assessed value of Country Squire Lakes was $54 million, Gay said. But by the end of 2015, it dropped to less than $20 million, he said.While the county received more than 1,200 foreclosed subdivision lots, the most recent tax sale resulted in 32 properties countywide being sold, Sporleder said.“The cost of advertising was more than we got from that tax sale,” the commissioners chairman said.
Gay said the upcoming cleanup, which includes removal of older manufactured housing, will only be the first step toward turning things around.
“When the old ones move out, we bring the new homes in,” Gay said.
What many are taking as a sign of confidence is the fact that after years of not paying dues, the three largest Country Squire Lakes landlords are now 90 percent caught up on their back dues, Greathouse told the commissioners.
That includes Victor Davis of Columbus, who has recently paid $323,000 in long-overdue fees, Greathouse said.
But besides seeing positive changes on the horizon, Sporleder said those landlords are likely afraid of what will happen if they don’t contribute to the cleanup efforts.
The commissioners chairman said he’s optimistic other property owners will follow the bigger landlords’ examples.
Raising tax revenue
While there have been several contributing factors, the overwhelming number of Country Squire Lakes foreclosures have been a major reason for declining tax revenue to Jennings County government, Sporleder said.Annual county government budgets in all 92 Indiana counties are made based on projected income from property taxes, Sporleder said.But for Jennings County, the annual amount received has been substantially less than what was projected because an average of 200 foreclosures were occurring at Country Squire Lakes each year, Sporleder said.
The approved transfer will not only result in a immediately $25,000 coming into the county coffers but will give elected officials more dependable economic forecasts, he said.
“It’s not going to be a windfall for the county — at least not immediately,” Sporleder said. “But it’s a major step in the right direction.”
The Jennings County commissioners voted Thursday to turn over deeds to 1,200 foreclosed lots in Country Squire Lakes subdivision to court-appointed receiver Mike Miller, a former judge, in an effort to get the properties back on the tax rolls. The action takes effect after 120 days, which means Miller should take ownership of the properties May 9.