James Simmons and his wife, Susan Gaipo, own a Westgate condominium, only, like 37 other units, it hasn’t been there since being destroyed by fire on March 11. The Simmonses pay a monthly $271.89 …
James Simmons and his wife, Susan Gaipo, own a Westgate condominium, only, like 37 other units, it hasn’t been there since being destroyed by fire on March 11. The Simmonses pay a monthly $271.89 association fee for water, heat and the upkeep of grounds that they don’t use. And according to a letter they just received from condo association manager William Herendeen, who also lost a unit in the fire, the Simmons will soon be expected to pay taxes on the unit.
Simmons anticipated that.
Condo owners were told they would be taxed through March 15 with the rest of the year abated. But that’s not what the letter says. Herendeen writes that he was mistaken about the date and, according to City Tax Assessor Christopher Celeste, the abatement, which will require City Council approval, won’t kick in until Aug. 11, the date the city building official declared the site of Building C cleared of demolition debris.
The difference between March and August is an 80 versus a 40 percent abatement, Simmons estimates. With a tax bill of about $1,600, Simons calculates the abatement at $640, not the $1,280 he believed he would get.
“They tore the building down,” Simmons says of the city, “so why should we be taxed?”
Simmons is correct. Even with embers glowing, the fire department called in a demolition company to start leveling the three-story structure. Chief Edmund Armstrong said the action was taken for the safety of firefighters and to reach hot spots. But even if the remnants of the building were allowed to stand, it wouldn’t have been inhabitable.
Simmons questions what changed from what unit owners were told after the fire and now.
“I wish there is more we could do,” said Celeste on Tuesday. He said by state statute the city can abate properties once the structure has been demolished, debris is removed and the site is graded. He said condo owners needn’t file for the abatements and that they would be applied to tax bills once approved by the City Council.
Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla, who represents Westgate residents, questioned whether there might be any “wiggle room” under the law that would allow for the abatements to take effect as of the date of the fire.
He said “it only seems fair” that condo owners shouldn’t have to pay taxes on units that didn’t exist.
Simmons isn’t happy with many aspects of how the fire was handled.
“The whole thing was bogus from the beginning from the cause of the fire to the water pressure,” he said.
Although the fire started on the third floor of the building in an area where a crew was using heaters to repair damage caused by ice dams, the state fire marshal ruled the cause “inconclusive.” Firefighters responding to the spectacular blaze were hampered by low water pressure, as a pump that pressurized the complex system overheated. In addition, firefighters failed to connect directly to Kent County Water and eventually tied into an adjoining condo system.
Simmons is also troubled by condo fees. The monthly fee was reduced by $25 after the fire. As he sees it, the reduction results from the fact that costs have been diminished now that Building C is gone. The reduced fee applies to all owners in the complex.
“Why should [buildings] A and B benefit from our disaster?” he asks.
And then there’s the question of what happens now?
Simmons said unit owners were told the building would be rebuilt by March of next year. He questions if that can be accomplished in such a timeframe, as construction hasn’t started.
That March date is critical in Simmons’ case. The day of the fire, Simmons turned to the company that insured the unit.
“AllState saved us,” Simmons said. He said the company immediately put them in a hotel for two weeks while finding them a nearby condo. AllState is picking up that rent until March 2016.
The structure of the unit is covered through a policy with Liberty Mutual that insures the entire complex, so Simmons could not take an insurance payout for the unit and leave. He could sell it, although it won’t be built for an indefinite period.
Even before the fire, Simmons said he wasn’t in a position to sell.
“I couldn’t have sold for what we owed on it,” he said.
Herendeen did not return a call and, according to the city building department, the Westgate Condo Association has not filed for a permit to rebuild Building C. The building would be required to meet today’s codes, including sprinklers and handicap accessibility.