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  1. #1
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    Default Vacant Building/Alarm Issue & Fee Schedule?

    Scenario:

    We are a small vol. fire dept. with a first due of about 3200 residents and cover a borough and township. We average about 150-190 runs a year. There is a vacant building in our first due that has been vacant for years and is currently on the real estate market. Years ago we were given a key to the facility in case of an issue because they didn't want to install a Knox Box. We do not have a Knox Box ordinance. We usually have more than 10+ alarm calls throughout a given year at this facility usually during the middle of the night and sometimes even multiple times within day, mostly because of issues with sprinkler system maintenance. We never get a keyholder/responder even if there is a problem. Our state law allows 3 false activations and then the property owner can be cited which we have done numerous times which does nothing. This scenario may not seem like a big problem, but to us given our small area and dept. size, it's both annoying and frustrating to get these calls and then not being able to take any necessary action. If we get a cal there, it's usually just to do a walk through and document. We thought about giving the key back because we no longer want to be responsible for it because the owners have decided they don't care and if we need to make entry into the building to investigate an active alarm, we'll force a door.

    1. Is there anything that we or our municipality can do legally to remedy this situation? (Our municipalities to my knowledge have not adopted the latest IFC)

    2. Is there a fee schedule that our fire dept. can use to base charging for restitution (per apparatus, manpower, equipment, etc.)?

    3. Who's responsibility would it be if we force entry and leave the building unsecured even after PD and the property owner were advised?

    4. Is there anything else we should be asking ourselves or be considering for this type of scenario?

    Thanks for your help.
    Ryan A. Zerbe
    Assistant Chief
    Womelsdorf Volunteer Fire Company
    Home of "Barney's Bandits" and the "Route 422 Express"
    www.womelsdorffire.com


  2. #2
    Forum Member PaladinKnight's Avatar
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    We have a False Alarm Fee. After 3 false activations, we bill the business owner or homeowner a $500 fee.

    But do check into whether you will be covered under the IFC or Local Municipal Codes. You might check with your District Attorney or a Judge on the issue. In some states, State law allows the District Attorney to collect service fees on behalf of Municipal, County or Corporate Fire Departments that are defined in the Statutes. Typically, Corporate Fire Departments operate under special authority granted by the State Legislature and their personnel are considered agents or officers of the State.

    Some localities have adopted a Fee Schedule due to the fact that False Alarms do have an associated cost; manpower, fuel, wear & tear on equipment, etc. And yes, it gets old when you respond several times only to find nothing.

    Municipal Jurisdictions can adopt ordinances without adopting their own Codes if they recognize the State Codes. So your town/city can adopt a False Alarm Code, but the Municipal Council/Mayor most likely will retain these fees in their local general fund, or their municipal court fund. If this is more consistant with your situation, you might visit with the City Attorney or Mayor.

    I would also contact the owner by Registered Letter informing him of the issue; number of false alarms, what was found, etc.

    If you should need to force entry, you must contact the owner or post someone until the owner arrives. The issue as to who covers the reapir should be worked out in advance with the owner. If it were me, I would get this on the table first and advise, The Fire Department is not responsible for damages or loss to the building and/or contents upon activation of a false alarm that requires forced entry determination.

    But again, I would pass this by the District Attorney since your State or Local laws may not allow you encompass a Hold-Harmless Clause.

    You also might consider a Service Fee Arrangement with the owner. This could be a predetermined fee charged each year based upon past incidents. This might be easier to negotiate if all other avenues prove to be difficult for your department.

    You might find that the Letter to the owner will initiate action to correct the issue.

    Good Luck.
    HAVE PLAN.............WILL TRAVEL

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    Forum Member thefyreman's Avatar
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    Barney,

    What you've described sounds like mostly a maintenance issue with the building's fire protection system - If the building is vacant, then there probably are some avenues by which the owner could be given permission to take the fire protection systems out of service. However, if the owner desires to maintain the fire protection system in service, or if there are other variables necessitating the systems stay in service, then Code Enforcement needs to start issuing correction orders and/or citations to the owner for improper maintenance. It's not the job of the fire department to "baby-sit" a delinquent building because the system is going into alarm unnecessarily.

    As for establishing a fee schedule, that is always an option – many local governments establish fees for unnecessary alarms, but just how much fees are charged and what constitutes a “false alarm” has to be clearly established and properly enacted into law by local ordinance.

    Responsibility of a property once the FD has completed their services has been a “bone of contention” for many years – the fire department doesn’t want to be “security guards” until an owner or owner’s rep. finally arrives at the scene, but the police don’t want to do it any more than the FD does, and the legalities of whether the police or FD has the responsibility of watching or securing the building is not usually spelled out. That would be something that should be worked out through the local government and established by written policy or memorandum of understanding between the governmental departments involved.
    - Remember our brothers in FDNY -

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    Forum Member DeputyChiefGonzo's Avatar
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    You need to get the town council to implement a knox box regulation for commercial/retail/industrial occupancies and give you the power to enforce it.

    If we have to "babysit" a building because the keyholder can't or refuses to come out, we require them to pay for a firewatch detail.... $40 an hour, with a 4 hour minimum. The detail remans in force until the repairs are made and the fire detection and protection systems re brought back on line.
    ‎"The education of a firefighter and the continued education of a firefighter is what makes "real" firefighters. Continuous skill development is the core of progressive firefighting. We learn by doing and doing it again and again, both on the training ground and the fireground."
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    Quote Originally Posted by CaptainGonzo View Post
    If we have to "babysit" a building because the keyholder can't or refuses to come out, we require them to pay for a firewatch detail.... $40 an hour, with a 4 hour minimum. The detail remans in force until the repairs are made and the fire detection and protection systems re brought back on line.
    Now that's an idea we might have to steal! We usually get in but screw on our own locks leaving when door can't be re-locked, and still have considered that some a-hole could claim something was missing. We always call PD on these types of runs, but requiring they pay Fire Watch would be perfect.

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    Quote Originally Posted by RFDACM02 View Post
    Now that's an idea we might have to steal! We usually get in but screw on our own locks leaving when door can't be re-locked, and still have considered that some a-hole could claim something was missing. We always call PD on these types of runs, but requiring they pay Fire Watch would be perfect.
    RFD.. it's not stealing.. it's "sharing knowledge, tactics and techniques!"

    We had an issue with a small condo complex whose fire alarm panel wasn't transmitting the box at 7:00 PM on a Friday. The condo association president asked of they could wait until Monday to call in their fire alarm company to do the repairs, as after hours requests for service cost $200 for the 1st hour and $100 an hour after that.

    They were given the option of doing their own firewatch (we provide the forms and do random spot checks to insure it is being done); the condo president said that wasn't an option, as he wasn't going to inconvienience anyone over the weekend.

    Option 2 was calling their fire alarm maintenance company in after hours.

    Option 3 was for us to do the firewatch for them... $40 an hour for a firefighter to "babysit" starting at 20:00 hours Friday, Saturday and Sunday all day until the system was brought up to code.... I gave the 30 minutes to decide...

    It was amazing how fast they got the fire alarm company out there to fix the system after they did the math!
    Last edited by CaptainGonzo; 01-15-2010 at 03:05 PM.
    ‎"The education of a firefighter and the continued education of a firefighter is what makes "real" firefighters. Continuous skill development is the core of progressive firefighting. We learn by doing and doing it again and again, both on the training ground and the fireground."
    Lt. Ray McCormack, FDNY

  7. #7
    Forum Member FWDbuff's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Barney47 View Post
    Scenario:

    We are a small vol. fire dept. with a first due of about 3200 residents and cover a borough and township. We average about 150-190 runs a year. There is a vacant building in our first due that has been vacant for years and is currently on the real estate market. Years ago we were given a key to the facility in case of an issue because they didn't want to install a Knox Box. We do not have a Knox Box ordinance. We usually have more than 10+ alarm calls throughout a given year at this facility usually during the middle of the night and sometimes even multiple times within day, mostly because of issues with sprinkler system maintenance. We never get a keyholder/responder even if there is a problem. Our state law allows 3 false activations and then the property owner can be cited which we have done numerous times which does nothing. This scenario may not seem like a big problem, but to us given our small area and dept. size, it's both annoying and frustrating to get these calls and then not being able to take any necessary action. If we get a cal there, it's usually just to do a walk through and document. We thought about giving the key back because we no longer want to be responsible for it because the owners have decided they don't care and if we need to make entry into the building to investigate an active alarm, we'll force a door.

    1. Is there anything that we or our municipality can do legally to remedy this situation? (Our municipalities to my knowledge have not adopted the latest IFC) Absolutely positively, first thing you need to do is confirm what, if any codes you are on. Your Fire Marshal and/or Building Code Official can help you with this. Are they aware of these problems? Both the FM and the BCO have more "teeth" than the VFD has to bite non-compliant building owners. If you are under the IFC, then you can hammer him for not performing routine maintenance to the sprinkler system as required by NFPA 25. Additionally the Fire Code allows the Fire Code Official (usually the FM and/or the BCO) to enact a knox box requirement WITHOUT having to adopt it by ordinance.

    2. Is there a fee schedule that our fire dept. can use to base charging for restitution (per apparatus, manpower, equipment, etc.)? You need to check with your Fire Deparment and your local Municipality's Solicitor. I believe this is something that would have to be adopted by oridnance.

    3. Who's responsibility would it be if we force entry and leave the building unsecured even after PD and the property owner were advised? Again, you need to check with your Solicitors. If you are having as many problems as you say, I would give the key back, and start forcing doors every time you go out there. Do as much damage as possible. Then turn it over to the Police.

    4. Is there anything else we should be asking ourselves or be considering for this type of scenario? It always helps to work hand-in-hand with your local Building Code Officals and Fire Marshals. It also helps to know what the local codes are.

    Thanks for your help.
    You mentioned that you do have some sort of false alarm ordinance in place for multiple trips; but that it does not sway the property owner. Perhaps it is time to re-visit the ordinance and update it to make the sting of the fees a little more condusive to "getting his attention."
    "Loyalty Above all Else. Except Honor."

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    A building isn't vacant until we say it's vacant!

    oops, wrong argument!

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    Just a few additional points.

    Our municipalities are that small that we do not have our own FM or zoning/building/code enforcement officers. Our fire chief is supposed to be responsible for fire marshal duties. They contract out for the other offices so we'd have to speak to someone we don't deal with or normally don't see.

    Our municipalities we cover do not have a false alarm ordinance in place as well, thus we use the state law in PA, "Control of Alarm Devices and Automatic Dialing Devices". It's been discussed approaching our municipal officials about ordinances for false alarms and for Knox Boxes however we haven't had too much support from them recently. (they cut our fire tax in half last year without even telling us!)

    I asked about the fee schedule because I heard through the grapevine that there were "recommended?" fire service fee amounts (maybe through NFPA?) that we could use for restitution purposes. That's what I'm looking to find. Hourly rates for apparatus, manpower, fuel, equipment, etc.

    As far as babysitting a building, that'll be a no-win situation for us. We're 100% volunteer and don't have the time, even if we may get reimbursed for it. If the property owner won't come even when we've actually had problems before, I don't see them coming out period unless maybe the place actually burned. And up to this point, they haven't had problems paying $100 fines + $300 restitution costs (our current amount) for each incident. I think they would just rather pay the fine/restitution than respond and make us deal with it with how it's been done before.

    According to my chief, he and our borough solicitor sent a letter to the property owner's insurance company, what it accomplished I have no idea.
    Ryan A. Zerbe
    Assistant Chief
    Womelsdorf Volunteer Fire Company
    Home of "Barney's Bandits" and the "Route 422 Express"
    www.womelsdorffire.com

  10. #10
    MembersZone Subscriber Dickey's Avatar
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    Barney...

    The others that have replied have great information.

    Our fee schedule is:

    $500.00 /hour for each engine
    $400.00 /hour for each tender
    $350.00 /hour for each brush truck or support vehicle (chief, ems vehicle, etc.)
    Each firefighter's hourly wage at normal pay rate (pay rate increases with rank, years of service and certifications)
    ---There is a minimum charge of 1 hour for all the above.


    A fee schedule has to be approved by your municipality. Once it's approved, you can start billing. We only bill for arson cases or for malicious calls like false alarms or people burning without a permit type of cases.
    Jason Knecht
    Assistant Chief
    Altoona Fire Dept.
    Altoona, WI

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  11. #11
    Forum Member CaptOldTimer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dickey View Post
    Barney...

    The others that have replied have great information.

    Our fee schedule is:

    $500.00 /hour for each engine
    $400.00 /hour for each tender
    $350.00 /hour for each brush truck or support vehicle (chief, ems vehicle, etc.)
    Each firefighter's hourly wage at normal pay rate (pay rate increases with rank, years of service and certifications)
    ---There is a minimum charge of 1 hour for all the above.


    A fee schedule has to be approved by your municipality. Once it's approved, you can start billing. We only bill for arson cases or for malicious calls like false alarms or people burning without a permit type of cases.


    What Jason said.

    Plus why are you guys babysitting, or better yet buidling sitting?? No fire or emergency, there isn't a need for the FD, turn it over to the cops and let them sit and te apparatus return to quarters.
    Stay Safe and Well Out There....

    Always remembering 9-11-2001 and 343+ Brothers

  12. #12
    Forum Member FWDbuff's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Barney47 View Post
    Just a few additional points.

    Our municipalities are that small that we do not have our own FM or zoning/building/code enforcement officers. Our fire chief is supposed to be responsible for fire marshal duties. They contract out for the other offices so we'd have to speak to someone we don't deal with or normally don't see. OK so your community is using a third-party service for zoning and code enforcement duties. Double check, sometimes communities (especially the small ones) keep the Code Enforcement in-house. Either way, whomever is responsible for Code Enforcement is also obligated to assist you. As for the Fire Marshal, that was going to be my next question, The State of Pa designates the AHJ or the Fire Chief as the Fire Marshal. Here is what I would do- He writes the Property Owner a letter (sending it by first class AND registered/return receipt postage) advising the owner that due to numerous false activations, that he is requesting that the sprinkler system be immediately serviced by a licensed sprinkler vendor, which is required by NFPA 25 as well as the International Fire Code. Additionally, failure to comply could lead to further enforcement action as allowed by the criminal code of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for failure to obey a public safety official. I would circulate the letter to the Insurance company with a cover letter explaining that the owner is not maintaining the system in accordance with NFPA 25 and the IFC. In addition, your legal counsel is investigating taking action against both the property owner as well as the insurance company I am confident that this will get the Insurance Company's attention if not the property owner. Use the IRC here much in the same situation that NFPA is used- It's not "law" per say (by you not having adopted the IRC) but it IS the recognized standard. Don't tell THEM you have not adopted the IRC, let them tell YOU that it is not your law. I doubt it would come to that.

    Something else you may consider- Since you do NOT go by any codes or ordinances, why not just have them disconnect the water flow alarm. Sounds to me like the sensitivity of the flow switch is set way too high (due to lack of maintenance) so just disconnect the damn thing- if and when there is a fire, the flow bells will activate and someone will call 911 anyways. Besides, the building is empty. Also consider telling the insurance company that you want the alarm disabled, that might get their attention as well. Insurance Companies don't like to get letters from Fire Marshals telling them that their Insureds are behaving badly and do not play well with Fire Departments. They can tell their insured "fix it or we cancel your policy."


    Our municipalities we cover do not have a false alarm ordinance in place as well, thus we use the state law in PA, "Control of Alarm Devices and Automatic Dialing Devices". It's been discussed approaching our municipal officials about ordinances for false alarms and for Knox Boxes however we haven't had too much support from them recently. (they cut our fire tax in half last year without even telling us!) I would get them to adopt the IRC, which will not only assist you in the above situations, but many others as well.

    I asked about the fee schedule because I heard through the grapevine that there were "recommended?" fire service fee amounts (maybe through NFPA?) that we could use for restitution purposes. That's what I'm looking to find. Hourly rates for apparatus, manpower, fuel, equipment, etc. You would have to adopt a cost-recovery ordinance, which is relatively easy to do in Pennsylvania for disposable and expendable materials such as fuel for long-term incidents, oil dry, booms, pads etc for haz-mats, or damaged hose, ladders or other equipment. But it is very hard to legally adopt one to recover costs of "personnel" such as volunteer firefighters. Again, adopt the IRC and a fee schedule with some teeth.

    As far as babysitting a building, that'll be a no-win situation for us. We're 100% volunteer and don't have the time, even if we may get reimbursed for it. If the property owner won't come even when we've actually had problems before, I don't see them coming out period unless maybe the place actually burned. And up to this point, they haven't had problems paying $100 fines + $300 restitution costs (our current amount) for each incident. I think they would just rather pay the fine/restitution than respond and make us deal with it with how it's been done before. Like I said earlier- force the door (and in retrospect, dont give the key back to them- oh dammit, it broke off in the lock, get it??? hint hint ) Force the damn doors, do as much damage as possible, and then turn the property over to the police. Babysitting forced buildings is not your problem. Turn it over to the PD. The more they get involved and have their time wasted, the more apt they will be to assist when the time comes.

    According to my chief, he and our borough solicitor sent a letter to the property owner's insurance company, what it accomplished I have no idea.
    I find this hard to believe. Again, Insurance Companies do NOT like to get letters from Fire Officials complaining that their insureds are not playing well with others. I speak from experience as both a Fire Code Official as well as a Building Code Official.


    If you need any more help, feel free to private message me with your email address. Be glad to help out another Hostage of the Commonwealth.

    One more thing, enlist the assistance of an area Fire Marshal who knows the game. Someone more locally who knows the local politics can be very valuable to you.

    I am pretty sure you can hammer him using the Pa Criminal Code for failure to obey a public safety official. Again check with the State FM's office. To do this you also might need the assistance of your local PD as well as the County DA.
    Last edited by FWDbuff; 01-15-2010 at 09:22 PM.
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    Forum Member FWDbuff's Avatar
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    Here is a sample letter I just hammered out for you, just to give you an idea.......Would be printed out on the Fire Marshal's letterhead. If he does not have one, use the official Township/Borough letterhead.

    WARNING NOTICE

    Sent via standard first-class and registered postage #7006 1234 5678 1234

    January 15, 2010

    Joeseph Q. Public
    123 Any Street
    Anytown, Pa. 11111-1234

    RE: 123 Main Street, Anytown, Pa. 11111
    Montgomery County Tax Map Parcel Number 45-111-111-111

    Dear Mr. Public,

    The Anytown Fire Department (AFD) has engaged our office in request for assistance in a matter concerning the above-referenced property. Recently, the AFD has responded to the property numerous times for false activations of the automatic sprinkler system’s flow alarm (find enclosed a list of responses.) While the nature of the Fire Department’s mission is to respond to all calls for assistance including automatic fire alarms, it becomes detrimental to their ability to serve the community when they have to respond repeatedly to the same address for obvious false alarms. I remind you that the members of the AFD are uncompensated volunteers, who may be taken away from their homes or places of employment to respond to the false activations.

    Additionally, the AFD has requested your assistance as well (both verbally and in writing), to respond (or to send a representative) to the property when an alarm is received, or to have the alarm and or fire sprinkler system serviced. Apparently their requests for assistance from you have gone unanswered. You may not be aware of certain codes and standards, which require both monitored alarm systems, as well as automatic sprinkler systems be serviced on an annual basis by registered, competent technicians.

    Therefore, as the Anytown Fire Marshal, I hereby require you to:

    1. Have the automatic sprinkler system serviced in accordance with the International Fire Code and NFPA 25. Any and all deficiencies found during the service shall be immediately repaired.
    2. Have the monitored fire alarm system serviced in accordance with the International Fire Code and NFPA 72. Any and all deficiencies found during the service shall be immediately repaired.
    3. Both systems shall be maintained in an acceptable state of readiness at all times, and shall be serviced annually in accordance with the above-cited standards. Further receipt of continued false trips will cause enforcement action by this office.

    You shall have no less than 10 business days from the receipt of this letter to act. Upon completion of the required service, the vendors shall provide to this office, copies of all service documents, as required by the referenced standards.

    Failure to comply will lead to enforcement action as prescribed by the Pennsylvania Criminal Code section ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, “failure to obey a public safety official.” This criminal offense carries a monetary penalty of $......................... for each offense, and/or imprisonment for …….days. Each day that the offense continues shall be a separate offense.

    This letter is also being sent to your Insurance Carrier, notifying them that the systems referenced above are not being properly maintained in accordance with recognized standards. Should you have any questions, please contact me at 123-456-7890. I am confident that with your cooperation we can come to a positive conclusion of this ongoing problem.

    Sincerely,


    Howard the Hose Head
    Anytown Fire Marshal

    CC: Property File
    Brian McCaffrey, Chief, AFD

    Piece of the Rock Insurance (by standard and registered US Postage #7007 2121 2121 2222)
    Property Protection Division
    1234 Main Street
    The Big City, Pa. 11112
    Last edited by FWDbuff; 01-15-2010 at 10:02 PM.
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    Forum Member DeputyChiefGonzo's Avatar
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    That was a work of art!
    ‎"The education of a firefighter and the continued education of a firefighter is what makes "real" firefighters. Continuous skill development is the core of progressive firefighting. We learn by doing and doing it again and again, both on the training ground and the fireground."
    Lt. Ray McCormack, FDNY

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    Default Vacant Building

    The issue of vacant buildings is not going to go away anytime soon, as we are in a weak real estate market.

    In some jurisdictions, if a property owner does not pay a fire department fee after a certain length of time, the fee can be placed on the property's real estate taxes.

    If you have legally established fees and a property owner refuses to pay those that they incurred, you may consider assessing them to their real estate taxes for that particular property. Some jurisdictions do this for properties that have overdue water and garbage bills.

    Check with your jurisdictions attorney and see if this can be done, if the need arises.

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    Forum Member FWDbuff's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by FIRE117 View Post
    The issue of vacant buildings is not going to go away anytime soon, as we are in a weak real estate market.

    In some jurisdictions, if a property owner does not pay a fire department fee after a certain length of time, the fee can be placed on the property's real estate taxes.

    If you have legally established fees and a property owner refuses to pay those that they incurred, you may consider assessing them to their real estate taxes for that particular property. Some jurisdictions do this for properties that have overdue water and garbage bills.

    Check with your jurisdictions attorney and see if this can be done, if the need arises.
    Fire117 is correct and placing a lien on a property is a fairly easy thing to do in Pennsylvania. I have had to do it for several properties in my community that were foreclosed on- and the banks never answered my calls to mow the lawns. In answer to the neighbors mounting complaints about the one-foot high+ grass on the properties, I had public works mow them numerous times. In the end though, placing a lien does nothing other than punish the buyer of the property. The problems continue.
    "Loyalty Above all Else. Except Honor."

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