County eyes land bank

STEUBENVILLE – The Jefferson County commissioners said Thursday they are in favor of establishing countywide land banking, which will allow for vacant homes and properties to be more easily demolished, purchased or improved.

Jim Rokakis, Thriving Communities Institute director, said land banking was created by state law for Cuyahoga County in 2008. The law was amended in 2010 for 43 other counties. Rokakis said there now are 18 land banks and 12 additional counties are considering it.

Domenick Mucci, Jefferson County Regional Planning Commission director, said two meetings were held with county offices that will participate in the land bank, including the treasurer, auditor, prosecutor and health departments.

Rokakis said the county can apply for $500,000 in funding, which can be used for demolition.

Under the land bank, property and houses can be more easily transferred to a responsible property owner. Currently, a person interested in a parcel of property that has delinquent taxes can request the property be put up for a treasurer or auditor sale. But liens on the property many times prevent the property from being sold and taxes collected from a responsible property owner. Rokakis said the land bank has the authority to wipe away the liens and allow for a clean title to the property.

Land banks can hold title to a parcel of property until the new owner makes necessary improvements, he said. There are financial institutions that have foreclosed on a house but the bank doesn’t maintain the property. Rokakis said housing values are dragged down by unkempt properties.

“Vacant properties are the scourge of the state,” he said.

The land bank is a quasi-government agency. The commissioners would have to fund about $5,000 to get the land bank incorporated. The land bank board will consist of two county commissioners, county treasurer, representative of the largest city and an appointed fifth member who has real estate or redevelopment experience.

The land bank will be funded by taking 5 percent of the proceeds of properties sold at a treasurer or auditor delinquent tax sale.

County Treasurer Raymond Agresta said the biggest benefit of the land bank is the ability to “scrub” liens on properties.

County Commissioner Tom Gentile said there are times a person wants to buy a parcel of property but won’t go through the process of a delinquent tax foreclosure because of the liens.

Lewis “Dobbie” Piergallini, chief deputy auditor in the real estate division, said school boards will get less money from delinquent tax sales but all the school district superintendents are in favor of the land bank.

Bruce Misselwitz, county health department administrator, said there are financial institutions willing to give properties to the land banks. He said “zombie properties” are described as foreclosed properties that aren’t being maintained by financial institutions. “Nobody wants to step up and maintain the property,” he said.

The land bank can only be used for residential properties.

“This sounds like a great plan for Jefferson County,” said county Commissioner Thomas Graham.

County Commissioner David Maple said after the presentation he feels comfortable in moving forward the process of establishing the land bank in the county.

“I hopes this become a component to make people more responsible land owners. It will put the properties in better hands and make the properties better,” Gentile said.

Commissioners also approved a contract between the county Job and Family Services Department and the Community Action Council for $414,371 for 98 young people to participate in a summer youth employment program.

Commissioners were informed by Mucci the county won’t be using CT Consultants for work on the Community Housing Improvement Program because of past deficiencies in work. Regional planning instead will contract with the consultant used by Toronto. Mucci said the county was in jeopardy of not receiving $225,000 in state funding because CT Consultants didn’t meet certain goals of the program.

Commissioners received an unsolicited letter from Sherry Loos, Rural Community Assistance Program senior rural development specialist, about the issue of landlords getting stuck with large water and sewer bills because tenants are delinquent in paying the bills.

“Public utilities should not be in the property rental business. Landlords are in that business, and, as such, they are the ones who should be fully responsible for water and sewer bills,” she said. Loos said paying customers shouldn’t be subsidizing the unpaid bills.

Commissioners also:

– Proclaimed May as Mental Health Month in the county.

– Approved a contract between the county 911 and Sabre Communications of Sioux City, Iowa, in the amount of $197,399 for construction of a 911 tower in the Dillonvale area. Rob Herrington, county 911 director, said there are cell phone companies interested in using the tower to improve cell phone reception in the Dillonvale area.

– Approved an increase in the monthly rent payment for the auto title office in the Rayland village building. The cost went from $350 a month to $500 a month. County Clerk of Courts John Corrigan said the rent hasn’t increased in five years.

– Opened one bid for signs for the county engineer’s department. The estimate was $21,100. A&A Safety of Cleveland bid $16,162 for the high-reflectivity signs. County Engineer James Branagan said the Federal Highway Administration will pay for 80 percent of the cost. County crews will install the signs, he said.

– Awarded a $144,630 contract between the engineer’s department and Shelly & Sands of Rayland for paving work on county Road 9. The engineer’s estimate was $158,300.

– Agreed to advertise for paving of 4 miles of JFK Highway (county Road 47). The estimate is $506,100.

– Agreed to advertise for a bridge replacement on county Road 7 in Mount Pleasant Township, with an estimated costs of $102,750.

– Were informed the second Community Development Block Grant public hearing has been scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on May 29 in the commissioners’ office. The county is expected to receive $159,000 in funding.