Fire cleanup sparks dispute in Kulpmont
KULPMONT - The area along the 900 block of Chestnut Street where three homes burned in January has been cleaned up, but a large pile of debris from a fourth property remains.
Borough officials, citing safety and health concerns, are fed up, and have already fined David D. Dubbs more than $22,000.
The borough paid approximately $3,900 to tear down the home, 916 Chestnut St., but it is Dubbs' responsibility to clean up the mess, said councilman Philip Scicchitano. He's been offered options.
"He hasn't done anything to remedy the situation. He's being hit with fine after fine and no response," he said.
Dubbs, 60, speaking from the porch of his sister's house on North Vine Street, Shamokin, where he has been living since the fire, said he was not insured and doesn't have the money to have the debris removed. He said he is being extorted by borough officials to give up his property for nothing.
"I need help," he said Monday. "I don't know where to turn in all this."
Borough: Not our mess
Scicchitano, who owns a pizza restaurant on the same block along Chestnut Street, which is Route 61, said the borough has offered several solutions to Dubbs, but he has refused. With no insurance, there are no funds available for clean up.
Scicchitano said people have been coming into his business wondering why the borough won't step in.
"We don't own the property, and if we came onto the site, it could be considered trespassing," Scicchitano said.
"He should either sign over the property to someone or find a way to clean it up."
Scicchitano said it's more than an eyesore; there could be health concerns.
"You can smell the mildew near the site," he said at the property Monday morning. "There is probably food items rotting in that pile and there could be black mold throughout it. It needs to be taken care of."
Dubbs, who has been on disability since 1979, said he met with fire officials and Kulpmont Mayor Myron Turlis a few days following the fire to answer some questions for the investigation. After the interview, Dubbs said Turlis spoke with him privately.
"He told me the best thing for me to do, since I didn't have homeowner's insurance, was to sign over the property to someone for $1 to get it cleaned up," Dubbs said.
The former Kulpmont resident said couldn't believe the mayor said that.
"I had just lost everything I own in the fire," he said. "That property is the only thing I have left, and they want to take that, too."
Turlis could not be reached Monday for response to that comment, but it's no secret that turning over the property has been suggested by borough officials as a remedy.
Kulpmont Fire Chief Raymond Siko II said Monday that no cause or starting point was ever determined for the fire, due to the heavy amount of damage caused by the blaze.
'My life for $1'
Dubbs said he spoke with a demolition company and an agreement was reached for the debris to be hauled away. He was going to make payments on the cost.
One day before the work was supposed to start, the deal was canceled. He said the hauler decided he would probably lose money and couldn't afford to do the work.
"He can't afford it? Look at me," he said.
He said he tried to strike the same deal with the borough - have the debris hauled away and he would make payments, with interest.
"They told me they are not in the business of making loans," Dubbs said.
Dubbs said there is a shed on the property and the items inside are still usable. With that, he would like to retain ownership of the lot, or at least get something for it.
"I don't want to give up what's left of my life for $1," Dubbs said.
Social club expands
Russ Moroz, code enforcement officer, has filed 48 citations against Dubbs, the last 21 on July 25.
He has already been found guilty of the other 27 at the magistrate level for failing to clean up a dangerous structure. Thirteen of those guilty verdicts came with a $1,000 fine as a third offense, while the rest had $500 fines attached. All total, Dubbs owes more than $22,000 in fines and court costs.
"If I don't have the money to clean up the property, how am I going to pay the fines?" he said.
This cost is in in addition to a $3,900 lien he says Kulpmont put on his property to recoup cost of an excavator used to help firefighters put out the smoldering rubble.
Dubbs said he's also been approached by the owners of the Cantina Stampina social club, 910 Chestnut St., which suffered some heat damage during the fire. He said they have also expressed interest in having him turn over the property, but, again, he feels it still has value.
'No one will help'
Dubbs, knocking his head against a pack of cigarettes in frustration, said he's at a loss.
"I can't afford a lawyer. I was represented by Legal Aid, but that attorney dropped me when I wouldn't sign over my property," he said. "I've gone to the Attorney General's office and the bar association, and no one will help me."
The borough, meanwhile, maintains that Dubbs must act.
"He is looking for the borough to clean up the mess, and we won't do that," Scicchitano said.