SUNBURY — Significant progress has been made fighting blight in Northumberland County since a task force was formed four years ago, but a lot more work needs to be done to alleviate one of the biggest problems facing local communities.That was the overriding message at Thursday’s second blight summit hosted by Northumberland County Housing Authority Executive Director Ed Christiano and Assistant Director Pat Mack at the county administration center. Approximately 30 local, county and state officials attended the two-hour meeting.
Thirty-seven blighted properties have been demolished and two others have been rehabilitated in the county since the first summit in the fall of 2011, according to Christiano. Most of those properties were in the southeastern end of the county, including Shamokin, Coal Township and Mount Carmel.
Christiano and blight consultant Chris Gulotta, of The Gulotta Group LLC, have spearheaded the task force.
During a PowerPoint presentation, Christiano updated attendees on the success the task force has achieved, displayed photographs of demolished blighted homes and explained various funding sources.
He said there are seven municipalities in the county entitled to Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding to fight blight, including Shamokin, Coal Township, Sunbury, Mount Carmel, Ralpho Township, Delaware Township and Milton.
He said the task force, appointed by county commissioners in 2012, was able to obtain a $500,000 Keystone Communities Grant that was leveraged by more than $500,000 in municipal allocations of CDBG and other funding. Other funding sources include $195,000 in Act 137 funding, $453,000 in HOME funds and $72,500 through a Federal Home Loan Bank.
He said the Keystone Communities funding approved in 2014 has been fully expended.
Christiano said private contributions were leveraged by $68,000 in Neighborhood Assistance Program tax credits. A $50,000 donation from Union National Bank in Mount Carmel was used to demolish six properties in Mount Carmel and four in Mount Carmel Township.
Mack said a Northumberland County Land Bank also was formed earlier this year to assist with expediting the demolition or rehabilitation of blighted properties. He said the first meeting of the land bank committee will be held later this month.
Christiano said the task force has encouraged municipalities to enact comprehensive property maintenance costs, take advantage of state laws that prohibit “bad actors” from purchasing additional properties at tax sales, develop a countywide warning system to capture data on at-risk properties and make a data base available to municipalities to target these properties, and improve communications with magisterial district judges to gain support in dealing with blighted properties.
Other strategies include encouraging municipalities to implement provisions of Act 90 that gives communities power to go after properties and property owners’ personal assets, encouraging communities to ticket for code violations as a summary offense, encouraging the county district attorney to charge repeat offenders with a second degree misdemeanor under the crimes code and encouraging appropriate entities to pursue the appointment of a conservator.
“We’ve been able to stop the bleeding, but there’s still a lot to be done,” Christiano said.
Cheryl Delsite, administrative assistant for the City of Sunbury who also works closely with Sunbury Redevelopment Authority, said the city has been active and successful in fighting blight. She said the city has taken eminent domain procedures to acquire some blighted properties. She said the properties are sold at auctions and either demolished or renovated.
“The key is to get the properties back on the tax rolls,” Delsite said. “But we make sure the properties are properly maintained and if the purchasers don’t comply, they can be taken away from them.”
Coal Township Manager Rob Slaby said the Keystone Communities Grant program has helped the blight problem; he talked about the township’s recent success in acquiring numerous blighted properties from the Kolody family through the conservatorship process.
Recently appointed Mount Carmel Code Enforcement Officer Joseph Jones has been active in making sure ordinance violators are quickly warned to rectify their violations, he said. Instead of sending tickets to property owners for high grass, accumulation of garbage and other blighted conditions, Jones said he posts orange placards on the homes warning property owners that further action will be taken if the problems aren’t quickly rectified.
“I’ve found that works better for us than issuing tickets and waiting for property owners to respond to them,” Jones said. “You can’t keep arresting the blight problem.”
Coal Township Police Chief William Carpenter said issuing tickets that later turn into citations has worked extremely well for his department. “The tickets have made a major difference for us,” he said.
Shamokin Code Enforcement Officer Rick Bozza said the city employs the same ticketing system as Coal Township, which has proven successful to a certain degree in a community that possesses one of the worst blight problems in the county.
Lack of manpower and time spent on tracking down blighted property owners also bog down the system, officials said.
Beverly Hutzel, manager of the Keystone Communities Program in the Center for Community Enhancement with the state Department of Community and Economic Development, told the attendees that they are making great strides in combating blight and commended them for their efforts.
“This is a great pilot program and we are thrilled with how it’s turned out. We will be seeking a lot of money next year to make sure it remains successful,” she said.
Veteran Coal Township Solicitor Vince Rovito, who also serves as solicitor for the county tax claims bureau, said educating the courts is a key to reducing blight. Rovito said the process starts at the tax sales, where many properties are purchased by out-of-state residents who fail to repair them and ignore warnings and citations. He said properties owned by corporations are particularly hard to contact and prosecute in court.
Rovito said owners of blighted properties must be held accountable for their deplorable conditions instead of the municipality where they are located.
He commended former county solicitor and magisterial district judge Hugh Jones, who is now a county judge, for re-instituting tax sales during his time working for the county. Rovito said no tax sales occurred over a 10-year period before Jones and himself pushed for them to get properties back on the tax rolls.
Rovito also praised the efforts of longtime Magisterial District Judge John Gembic III in cracking down on blighted property owners who are charged with causing public nuisances. He said all four magisterial district judges in the county need to be consistent in penalizing owners of blighted properties.
Before it happens
Shamokin Mayor William Milbrand acknowledged the success of the blight task force, but said, “We need legislation to make property owners more responsible before these blighted structures become the city’s problem.”
Mandy Book, director of the Center for Community Enhancement, praised the summit and its participants.
“There are a lot of opportunities going forward that can help you change the face of neighborhoods,” Book said. “We support your efforts in fighting blight.”
Michael P. Carpenter, grant manager for the Center for Community Development with DCED, said, “The stakeholders in this room are very impressive. In addition to fighting blight, the stabilization of existing housing also is very important.”
Carpenter said Northumberland County has received $2 million in HOME funding.
State Sen. John Gordner (R-27), of Berwick, praised state Rep. Kurt Masser (R-107) and Sen. David G. Argall, a Republican who represents Schuylkill and Berks counties, for sponsoring bills to assist communities in fighting blight. Gordner said he plans to continue to work with his fellow legislators in making sure municipalities have the proper tools.
Kerry Kirkland, central region director for DCED, said, “I think making a regional commitment to fighting blight is a wonderful thing. You’ve made remarkable progress, but need more funding. Hopefully, that funding can be secured in the future.”
Northumberland County Commissioner Chairman Richard Shoch and his colleagues Sam Schiccatano and Kym Best offered their support to the task force, and state Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver (R-108), of Sunbury, noted the blight problem in the county has been significantly reduced, especially in her hometown of Sunbury.