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11 Investigates: Woman's vacation plans go up in smoke after she's denied money held in city account

Council transfers money being held for central Toledoan months before she requests it.

TOLEDO, Ohio — Scroll through the city of Toledo’s financial transparency website, and a lot of things are obvious. There are annual audits and budget documents. But at the bottom of the page, there is a “Fire Escrow” category.

It’s a fund that probably few residents even know exists.

But if there is a fire at a resident’s home in the city of Toledo, and insurance pays to repair or replace the structure, a portion of the insurance payout is put in the trust. The idea is that if the homeowner doesn’t make repairs or rebuild, the city can then use the deposited money to rehab the structure.

However, if the property owner repairs the home, they can have the home inspected by the city and if it passes, the insurance money is released to the owner. If some cases, the windfall is more than $10,000.

The fund continues to grow. In the latest quarterly statement, there were more than 175 properties listed, dating back to 1997, and the account has swelled to more than $2 million. Two years ago, it was a little more than $1.7 million.

11 Investigates researched the properties on the most recent list – from the third quarter of 2022 - eliminating homes where property taxes were owed, where property owners had died, or where it was not clear who the owners were. We specifically examined properties where the listed owner is the same as when funds were first deposited into the fire escrow account.

One of those owners was Mary Terrell, who has lived in her central Toledo home since 1979, except for several months in 2007 when she was living in a hotel after a fire and her house was being rebuilt.

We showed up unannounced and were met by Terrell, who talked to us through a window. When we explained about the fire escrow account and that the city was holding more than $11,000 for her, she was understandably excited.

“This is unbelievable, just unbelievable,” she said. “What do I have to do?”

She was shown the fire escrow page, which can be found at online here. Her property is listed on the page. She confirmed that her home suffered fire damage in 2007, after an outlet shorted out and ignited a fire in the bedroom. There was extensive damage, but she rebuilt with insurance money, though she did have to dig into her own pocket to finish the project.

She was then shown the application to fill out. Before leaving, we were told her plans for the money: “If I were to get $11,000, I have several places I would like to go: Hawaii, Jerusalem, and a family outing.”

The dreams were short-lived. She texted a few days later to say the city denied her request to have the funds released.

In an email response, the city told her: “I’m sorry to inform you that your fire escrow deposit was made in September of 2007 and in September of 2022, your account was considered abandoned and those funds are no longer available to be released to you.”

She was told that the city mailed a notification letter to a P.O. box after the fire. She said she did have a P.O. box in the months in which she was out of the house, but it was a turbulent time in her life and does not remember seeing it.

“I would think I would remember if someone said they had $11,000 for me.”

The city also said they put a notification in The Blade each week of June 2022.

“I don’t get The Blade,” she said, wondering how she was supposed to hear about that.

In an email, Dennis Kennedy, the commissioner of the Division of Urban Beautification, explained that the city considers funds to be abandoned after five years. A city spokesman was asked multiple times for a representative to sit down with 11 Investigates to answer questions. There was no response.

According to Kennedy, the fund is allowed because of section 9.39 of the Ohio Revised Code. And that section says money is forfeited after five years. However, it is not explained when the clock begins ticking on those five years. In Terrell’s case, she was told her money was considered forfeited 15 years after her house was destroyed.

There is no mention of a deadline on the city’s fire escrow page, including on the sample letter that is sent to residents affected by a fire.

On Nov. 9, council voted unanimously to transfer $306,000 from the fire escrow account to the demolition trust fund. In an attachment, Terrell’s property was listed as part of the funds taken out of the fire escrow account. The city considered her funds forfeited in late September, but her $11,000 was transferred less than three months before she requested them.

And she’s not happy about it.

“I actually feel kind of slighted. I was on this list in the third quarter and now the funds are not available,” she said.

The last list on the city’s site still includes her property.

“I don’t feel too good about it. I don’t feel too good about it at all.”


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