SUNBURY — The Northumberland County Housing Authority brought together code enforcers from municipalities around the county Thursday morning to expand education on ways officials can “fight the blight” in their communities.

The approximately 4-hour long forum took place at the Northumberland County Administration Center with a gathering of code officers and officials from Shamokin, Coal Township, Marion Heights, Mount Carmel, Milton and more, and featured a number of speakers offering their expertise on how blight is being tackled throughout Pennsylvania.

Before getting down to business, state Reps. Kurt Masser (R-107) and Lynda Schlegel Culver (R-108) presented Ed Christiano, executive director of the housing authority, with a $500,000 Keystone Communities Grant secured by the two representatives and Sen. John Gordner (R-27).

It was a team effort in securing the grant, according to Masser, but he attributed much of the success in acquiring funding to Christiano and the high success rate the housing authority has had in distributing and using grant monies to help communities fight blight.

Christiano said the authority is in the process of developing a program coordinated with other funding sources that will be available to municipalities to help them address blight. The authority has a plan on how to run the program, but has to further develop it and submit it for state approval.

‘Right-sized’ approach

Chris Gulotta, of The Gulotta Group, began the forum with a presentation on the “right-sized approaches” for small communities to use in fighting blight which includes ticketing, a tactic he said he first learned of from Coal Township manager Rob Slaby in 2012.

In communities he’s spoken with, Gulotta said there’s been a universal 90-95 percent success rate of property issues being addressed through the issuance of tickets prior to handing out code citations. Ticketing allows people a defined period of time to address problems, ultimately saving costs spent by taking the issue to the magisterial court system.

Magisterial Judge John Gembic, of Shamokin, spoke out saying Coal Township has been successful because officials serve the tickets directly to the home owner rather than posting it on the property. He noted it’s a lot of work to seek someone out to physically hand them the ticket and have the conversation about the property, but it’s been the key reason why the township has seen success.

Doug Diehl, Milton code officer, said with the amount of problems in his area specifically, it’s “almost impossible to find somebody at home” to deliver tickets to, and oftentimes those people won’t sign certified letters. Following the International Property Maintenance Code adopted by the state allows the notice to be served through posting it to the home, he said.

Gembic maintained that not having direct contact in the ticket issuance is just “throwing (the problem) back at the courts.” Diehl disagreed, and said he’s had many people convicted for failing to address property issues after a notice has been posted.

Lively conversations between invitees were frequent, forcing Gulotta to consolidate the remaining 25 minutes of his presentation into just 5 minutes. That provided time for a panel discussion with Dave Patton, Harrisburg codes administrator; John Eby, Lower Allen Township building and zoning coordinator; and James Emery, Central Keystone Council of Government code enforcement supervisor. The conversation flowed into stories from Brianna Apfelbaum Kula and Michael J. Kula on how the city of Sunbury has worked to handle blight.

More to come

Christiano was pleased with the day, adding he thought it was a great educational forum for all municipalities and their representatives. The amount of questions and interactions may lead to a future roundtable on the topic, he said.

“I think we learned a lot of what we need to do with blight money, and how certain properties need to be addressed, but aren’t easy to acquire,” he said.

Masser, whose House Bill 653 reducing the timeframe for foreclosure on abandoned and vacant properties was signed into law in June, was also pleased with the forum.

“I thought it gave the code officers a lot of new tools they maybe didn’t have before,” he said. “Anytime we can give them education on things like this, it helps. It was great the housing authority decided to put this on.”

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