Luzerne County blight plan funding debated

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - jandes@timesleader.com
Haas -

A Luzerne County committee created to compile a blighted property database is in limbo due to a concern about its funding.

When county council set up the committee in 2016, its ordinance said the county Redevelopment Authority shall provide the panel with administrative help and access to a solicitor.

But county Councilman Harry Haas, who pushed for and serves on the committee, said the authority cannot meet that mandate due to staffing issues.

Instead, the authority agreed to provide the county with $15,000 in 2018 as reimbursement for office supplies, advertising and services of the county council clerk and an assistant county solicitor.

In light of this ordinance divergence, a council majority voted Dec. 12 to reject the $15,000 in its final 2018 budget adoption.

“So essentially, we’re de-funding the blighted property review committee,” Haas complained at that time, saying the action would bring the committee to a “grinding halt.”

Council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck said the ordinance, as written, doesn’t allow such a payment. Haas can seek an amendment restoring the funding in the county budget down the road if a council majority agrees to alter the ordinance as he has proposed, she said.

Council is scheduled to vote next week on an ordinance change proposed by Haas that would say both the county and authority shall provide the committee’s administrative and legal assistance.

Council Vice Chairman Tim McGinley flagged the issue earlier this month. It was “very well stated” the blight initiative would not cost the county anything when council agreed to create the committee, he said.

McGinley said he agreed to the plan because the authority was supposed to handle the administrative and legal work, and it’s unclear if $15,000 would be enough because the initiative is a new “unknown” venture.

“What if we get to August and run the clock beyond $15,000?” McGinley said.

Councilwoman Kathy Dobash concurred and said she has a “cautionary view” of the cost.

“I don’t think it’s going to be smooth sailing legally for this committee,” Dobash said.

Haas said the committee spent a year estimating costs and developing a plan to ensure abandoned property owners have adequate due process before real estate is certified as blighted.

Committee expenses should not exceed $15,000 because the committee will meet six times per year solely to certify property as blighted, he said.

Vacant properties could be declared blighted and placed on the list for numerous reasons, including public nuisance code violations, safety problems that may attract and endanger children, unaddressed vermin infestations or broken or disconnected utilities, plumbing, heating or sewage systems.

Officials in the county’s 72 boroughs and townships must nominate properties and provide documentation on a structure’s last known date of occupancy, blight conditions and citations and other efforts to try to force the owners to address deficiencies. The county’s four cities — Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Nanticoke and Pittston — can’t participate in the new program by law because they have their own redevelopment authorities to address blight, officials said.

Upheld or uncontested violations not addressed by property owners within six months result in a certification hearing formally placing the property in the blight database. Once that happens, the authority can do nothing or take action, including securing ownership through eminent domain.

Municipalities have submitted preliminary requests to certify 19 properties as blighted since the committee started accepting applications in October, Haas said.

“A lot of folks up and down the county have shown their thanks and appreciation for it. It’s a real issue in our community,” Haas said.

Haas
https://www.psdispatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/web1_haasuse.jpgHaas

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

jandes@timesleader.com

More information

Details about the blight initiative are posted under the council committee section of the county website, www.luzernecounty.org.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.