Masser: Blight fight 'comes down to money'
Part 2 of 2
SHAMOKIN - Better coordination locally and tougher laws at the state level have helped in the fight against blight, but state Rep. Kurt Masser (R-107) knows what it will take to continue making progress.
"We need to find a dedicated funding source to address blight," he said. "It always comes down to money."
Among the possibilities tossed about in discussions in Harrisburg is adding a one-half percent surcharge to homeowner insurance policies, something Masser believes would have minimal impact on policyholders while adding up to a considerable pot of money statewide.
There's no formal legislation proposed in that regard, but Masser said the blight issue does get attention from lawmakers because it applies broadly to metropolitan and medium-sized cities and smaller communities such as those in the lower anthracite region.
"There are going to be some votes there (for blight funding); there's no doubt in my mind," said Masser, who is a member of the Urban Affairs Committee that discusses the topic regularly.
Land bank options
Prior to his visit to The News-Item for an interview Thursday, Masser toured blighted properties in the region with Ed Christiano, executive director of the Northumberland County Housing Authority, and Christopher Gulotta, of The Gulotta Group, Carlisle, hired as a consultant when the authority formed a countywide blight task force in 2012. The task force hopes to cut the number of blighted properties in the county in half in five years.
Masser said he asked Gulotta what he could do legislatively to help, which led to a discussion about judicial sales.
Northumberland County has sold hundreds of properties through such sales in the past few years, seemingly reducing blight as individuals and businesses buy up dilapidated properties with no liens attached. Too often, however, these "speculators" are looking for a quick buck and instead get a larger headache then they bargained for.
Soon, they aren't paying their taxes and the same tax-sale process that takes up to three years has to start over. Instead of a solution, the problem drags on longer.
The concept of land banks, part of an anti-blight law that became effective in December, could help, Masser said. The law allows municipalities to acquire, clear and develop blighted property, and court-appointed conservatorships take over the properties from non-responsive landlords.
Masser hopes to arrange meetings with the county commissioners and blight task force to further explain the process.
"The ideal way is for the land bank to be out ahead of this and looking at what properties they think are important, and make sure they're not put back on these judicial sales," Masser said.
A bright spot
Masser did note some progress locally in the fight against blight, including UNB Bank of Mount Carmel contributing $50,000 through the task force's Neighborhood Assistance Program to raze four vacant house in the 400 block of East Center Street and a dilapidated structure at 242 S. Poplar St. in Mount Carmel earlier this year. Businesses like UNB that contribute receive a 75 percent state tax credit.
On Thursday's tour, Masser drove by that area.
"For those folks that live on that block, it's a big deal, because it's a nice block," he said. "They take care of their homes, they take pride in their homes, and you have those four homes in the middle of the block that were just sitting there for 50 years. It's unbelievable - how could they sit there for 50 years?"
All level today, "It looks nice there now," Masser said.
Not only is the blight removed, but now there are now lots on which to build new homes.
"There are people who grew up in Mount Carmel who want to live there," he said.