TOLEDO, Ohio — A day after an 11 Investigates report found a Central Toledo woman appeared to miss out on a significant refund from the city fire escrow account, the city acknowledged that a mistake was likely made and is working to rectify the issue.
During a review of the 177 properties on the fire escrow account, 11 Investigates identified a woman, Mary Terrell, who still lived in a home that was damaged by fire in 2007.
In Toledo, if a homeowner submits an insurance claim after a fire, the insurance company deposits $2,000 for every $15,000 paid to the homeowner into the city's fire escrow account. If the owner doesn't rebuild or rehab the structure, the city can then use the deposited money to raze or repair the home.
In Terrell's case, State Farm deposited more than $11,350 into the account. Her home was rebuilt, with some money out of her own pocket, so the money should have been returned to her. Instead, it was part of more than $300,000 that city council transferred from the fire escrow account in November into the demolition fund because it was determined to be "abandoned."
But during an interview with 11 Investigates, Commissioner Dennis Kennedy of the Division of Urban Beautification noticed that there was a name change from the check deposited by State Farm to the property deed registered with the county. He speculated that the change may have caused an issue when the city tried to prove the rightful owner of the money.
"The effort is there and we are trying," Kennedy said. "But sometimes people like Mary fall through the cracks. This doesn't mean this issue can't be resolved."
Late Friday afternoon, Kennedy followed up with an email and a picture. The picture was of Terrell's property with a "refund" stamped across it, meaning that an inspector had said it had been properly rebuilt and eligible for release of the insurance money.
For some reason, Kennedy said, Terrell's account landed on the "abandoned" list.
"I should’ve been more vigilant in reviewing the addresses on the legislation before it was passed by council," Kennedy wrote in the email. "Moving forward, we need to create a workflow step to ensure these are reviewed promptly and cross checked before the city designates an account to truly be considered 'abandoned.' My next step is to work on resolving this, and refunding Mary her $11,000-plus."
Kennedy said he began reviewing the city's fire escrow account in 2011. At one point, it contained more than $4 million, and money continues to be deposited into it. He has been on a team of 12 members who review each account - tracking it to see if it's been rehabbed - and reaching out to homeowners if they are eligible for a release of insurance funds.
He acknowledged that many residents may not be aware of it. In Terrell's case, she said she was not and was living out of a hotel when the city likely reached out to her.
In the third quarter statement, the account contained a little more than $2 million, but Kennedy continues to try to whittle it down - either by returning it, or if the funds have truly been abandoned, transferring it to the demolition fund.
More than 200 fire-damaged homes had no insurance. Money in the demolition fund can then raze them if they are deemed abandoned.
"I would prefer that we don't have any balance in the fire escrow account," Kennedy said. "Either we use the money to remove the house or give it back to the owner. There really is no gray area in that, but sometimes it's not easy to find people."
He did say that following our Thursday night report, several people have reached out to his office to see if their properties were on the list.
He recommended that people go to this link and open the fire escrow tab. If your property is there, an application can be filled out and submitted.