PITTSFIELD, Maine — Town Manager Kathryn Ruth said Wednesday that the town’s first priority was to make sure the Jones-Moss family was safe and sheltered after the loss of the family’s Somerset Avenue home on Tuesday.
“This is a very, very unfortunate incident,” Ruth said, adding that it was miraculous that the family of seven, which included four children, was able to escape from the burning home at 2:44 a.m. Tuesday.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office determined the fire started in the basement at an overloaded electrical circuit.
Ruth said many people have approached the town about providing aid to the family and all inquiries have been directed to the American Red Cross’ Waterville chapter.
The Red Cross has provided temporary housing for the family, and a local thrift shop, Pennywise, has provided clothing and other items.
But almost immediately after the fire was extinguished, questions regarding ownership of the home surfaced and Ruth had to contact the town’s attorney to determine who should board up the home, who should remove the burned remnants and who actually owns the property.
“Initially, we began asking these questions because we wanted to make the property safe. We wanted to board up the windows. We did not want to intrude, but we also don’t want it left open,” she said.
The large Victorian-style home is on Somerset Avenue near schools and parks in the heart of Pittsfield. “It was a safety issue,” Ruth said.
The home is tax-acquired property, acquired by the town for $13,000 in back taxes. But even though Pittsfield has a lien on the property, the home has remained under the ownership of the family. Seizing someone’s home is a complicated process, and the town was in the midst of foreclosing on the property.
“We try to work with residents,” Ruth said. In the past, the council has approved payment plans of as little as a few dollars per week to allow residents to remain in their homes.
Ruth said that of the 51 tax-acquired properties on the books when she came to Pittsfield six years ago, the Jones-Moss property was the only one remaining. She said the town had entered into a payment plan arrangement with the family and, while that was in effect, it could require that insurance remain on the home. But once the agreement was breached, Ruth said, the town could no longer enforce the insurance requirement.
There was no insurance on the home at the time of the fire.
Ruth explained that the town’s attorney has advised that even though the home was in the court process for foreclosure, that process was not complete and therefore it remains in the hands of the family.
Ruth said the family now has two options: Proceed with the foreclosure process, or release ownership of the structure to the town. She said the Town Council would have to take a formal vote to make the foreclosure action final.
Either way, she said, it appears the town will eventually be responsible for cleaning up the burned building, which she called “an expensive process.”