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Abandoned school poses risks for neighbors, legal issues for city

The 100-year-old Saint Mary's Catholic School building in Schenectady could have been a neighborhood gem. The building was slated, tentatively, for redevelopment as office space or even apartments several years ago. The company that purchased the property, though, fell behind on taxes and abandoned the site.

Now, the structure has deteriorated to the point that not even the police will go in to investigate reports of suspicious activity. Someone inside the building -- a squatter or a local kid intrigued by the broken-down old school -- was recently throwing things out the window at passersby on the sidewalk below. Officers at the scene would not risk their own lives by going inside to find out what was going on. With rotting floors and windows blown out by gusts of wind, the place is just not safe.

And that is what the neighbors have been complaining about for quite some time. Things fall off the building or are thrown out the windows. Kids are intrigued by the mystery and decay of the place, and they want to explore. People have made the school their home, illegally, because, frankly, the neighbors say, no one seems to care what happens there. Someday, though, someone is going to get hurt.

After the development company abandoned its plans for the site, it also abandoned its tax obligations. Schenectady eventually gave up trying to collect the $151,934 of back taxes and sold the tax lien, as part of a portfolio of 100 similar liens, to a third party. But who holds the title to the property?

The sale of the tax lien puts the onus of collecting the back taxes on the third party. The company also has the right to foreclose on the property if it cannot collect on the debt. In return, the company agrees to keep the taxes current. It's a controversial practice among real estate professionals for a number of reasons, one being that the specific company involved has allowed properties to deteriorate and has itself fallen behind on tax payments.

The city of Schenectady and the tax lien purchaser are in the midst of a court battle right now, though city officials did not elaborate on the details. But while the school's ownership is unclear, the city could be putting itself on the hook for damages if someone is injured on the property.

Do you think the city should be liable even if it is not clear who owns the site? Is it the city's responsibility to keep abandoned sites from becoming dangers to the public?

Source: CBS 6 Albany, "Neighbors: Dilapidated School Should be Torn Down," Aug. 28, 2013Syracuse Post-Standard, "Tax liens cause disputes for Syracuse, a Florida firm and long-distance homeowners," Tim Knauss, April 25, 2011

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