Progress made, but better enforcement desired in war on blight
COAL TOWNSHIP - Significant progress has been made in the coal region to fight blight, but more funding and tougher enforcement powers are needed to eliminate unsightly structures and get the properties back on the tax rolls.
That was the message shared Thursday during a roundtable discussion and a tour of blighted properties hosted by state Rep. Kurt Masser (R-107).
Masser was joined by state Rep. Dave Reed, a Republican from Indiana County who serves as chairman of the House Majority Policy Committee, and local officials. Their purpose was to address blight problems that plague Northumberland County, especially Shamokin and Coal Township.
Reed, who represents a mostly rural area, said he noticed several blighted properties en route to the Northumberland County Career and Technology Center, site of the roundtable.
He commended Masser for bringing the blight issue to the forefront in the House and talked about how serious a challenge it has become for local governments to overcome with limited resources.
Reed stressed the importance of being willing to change and eliminating territorial issues in a countywide battle against blight.
Masser added, "In order for the blight task force to work, we must all work together as a team."
That team includes magisterial district judges, local and county government officials, code enforcement officers, police and community residents.
Coal Township and Shamokin officials
talked about steps that have been taken in their respective communities to reduce blight and fine the owners of rundown properties. Some of the owners have been referred to as absentee landlords or slumlords.
Shamokin Mayor William Milbrand said a declining population, lack of jobs and out-of-state landlords who refuse to make improvements to their properties, no matter what action is taken against them, have caused most of the problems.
"Shamokin used to be a tight-knit community with many good families, but we started losing the coal industry after World War II, and then the garment factories started closing down or moved to other areas." he said. "Now we have a lot of empty buildings and there's nothing here to keep younger folks."
Milbrand added that relatives of people who lived in Shamokin for many years before passing away are anxious to sell their properties to people who end up not properly maintaining them. He said other relatives who live out of the area or out of state keep ownership of the properties, but don't make any improvements, which makes them very difficult to sell.
He suggested collecting delinquent taxes on the properties quicker and being more diligent in making sure property owners pay fines and/or demolition costs.
"We're combating blight the best way we can," the mayor said.
Craig Fetterman, president of the Coal Township Board of Commissioners, noted that Shamokin and Coal Township once had a combined population of 50,000. Coal Township currently has a population of 10,000, while the city's population now stands at 7,500.
Fetterman praised the efforts of Massser, Edward Christiano, executive director of Northumberland County Housing Authority, who has spearheaded the county's blight task force, and Chris Gulotta, a blight consultant with the Gulotta Group, Carlisle.
Fetterman also commended Coal Township Manager Rob Slaby and Code Enforcement Officer Chris Petrovich for their work in attacking the problem.
"We've received $205,000 in grant funding and all of it is being spent on blight demolition," Fetterman said.
Fetterman said several of the worst blighted properties in the township are owned by one individual.
"We have to think out of the box because the traditional methods of going after these people aren't working," he said.
Fetterman talked about how the township's new ticketing system for code violations has allowed the township to keep the entire fine money, while also expediting the compliance process. If violators don't pay the initial $25 ticket, it becomes a summary, non-traffic citation filed at the magisterial district judge's office.
Shamokin Cpl. Bryan Primerano and Code Enforcement Officer Rick Bozza said the city has adopted the same ticketing system as the township, with fines ranging from $25 for the first offense to $300 for the fourth and any subsequent offense.
Primerano said repeat offenders are sometimes charged with misdemeanors for creating a public nuisance.
Primerano and Bozza ride around the city and compile a list of blighted properties, which are then addressed by priority.
Coal Township Solicitor Vincent Rovito summarized the feelings of the roundtable participants the best when he told Masser and Reed, "We've taken a quantum leap from what we had before, but you haven't given us enough power."
Rovito was alluding to creating better laws to allow communities to go after owners of partnerships or corporations who own blighted properties.
Because of limited resources, Rovito said it's very difficult and often not worth officials' time to go after out-of-state slumlords. He recommended that state legislators attempt to change public nuisance violations from misdemeanors to felonies, which would allow slumlords to become wanted persons if they fail to pay fines and costs or repair their properties.
"Give us the same power as the federal government if you want us to clean up blight more efficiently," Rovito said.
Rovito said communities that have enacted the provisions of Act 90 of 2010 have been able to place liens on all properties owned by an individual for costs incurred by the municipality in bringing the property into compliance with codes. Act 90 also allows municipalities to deny permits to owners of properties with serious code violations, delinquent taxes or utilities, including rental housing licenses.
Reed and Masser said new legislation has been introduced to fight blight, but noted it was nearly impossible for local communities to be granted the same authority as the federal government.
Gulotta pointed out that approximately 10 communities in the county have adopted ordinances and have used legislative tools to better fight blight.
"A lot of good work has been done, but more work needs to be done," Gulotta said.
Gulotta distributed a handout outlining the funding sources for the county blight task force and the demolition projects it has been involved with since its establishment in 2012.
Jamie Shrawder, project coordinator for community development with SEDA-COG, informed government officials that communities can be reimbursed by the state for equipment rentals involved in the demolition of blighted structures. She stressed that more funding is needed to accumulate data in planning demolition projects.
Shrawder said communities usually request fair market value for the sale of blighted properties, but they can also receive a low-income price if it meets the eligibility requirement.
Two of the major blighted properties mentioned during the roundtable were the former St. Anthony School in Ranshaw and former Shroyer Dress Factory, which encompasses a one-block area in the Bunker Hill section of the city.
Milbrand said Shamokin and Coal Township should research how a dozen homes in Girardville were razed and new ones constructed on the sites.
Gulotta said he believes money obtained through the HOMES program was the major funding source for the projects in Girardville.
Masser added, "You can bring property values in a whole neighborhood back up by tearing down one blighted property."
Following the roundtable, Milbrand, who serves as owner of Catawese Coach Company, provided participants a bus tour of blighted properties in Coal Township and Shamokin including 1550 W. Lynn St., 5 N. Bay St., 7 N. Bay St., 1445, 1447, 1449 and 1451 W. Chestnut St., 406 Cypress St., 1721 W. Independence St., 401 S. Market St., 650, 661, 663, 664 and 667 Bear Valley Ave., and 1-3 S. First St.
Other participants included Coal Township Commissioner Paul Leshinskie, Slaby, Petrovich, Shamokin Community Development Director Lynn Dixson, Jenny Stratton and Brianda Freistat, executive director and research analyst, respectively, of the House Majority Policy Committee, and Harold Hurst, district office manager for Masser.