Just three weeks ago, City Council decried the removal of a single property along West Fourth Street to create space for the Williamsport Area School District during a period in which community leaders have struggled to find a solution to the housing crisis.
Now, 14 more properties are scheduled to be demolished to make way for one of the city's multiple large institutions, the Young Men's Christian Association, 320 Elmira St., to build anew while abandoning its former site in a historical neighborhood.
Besides contributing more to the affordable housing crunch, the move continues a trend of institutional expansion - not from one entity but citywide - that has chipped away at the tax base over decades.
To be fair, the YMCA and Susquehanna Health are partnering in the relocation of the YMCA to create a new health, wellness and fitness project area at the Williamsport Regional Medical Center campus, all within the institutional zone expanded by an act of City Council in 2004-05, according to Councilman Bill Hall.
But the health system is not the lone institution eating away at neighborhoods.
Over the past 12 years, the city has lost population and experienced multiple demolitions that took 409 taxable parcels off the tax rolls, according to Thomas P. O'Connor Jr., city treasurer. By 2008, the city began to face a housing shortage brought on by the introduction of Marcellus Shale and natural gas workers needing places to live as well as interns in the medical field, nurses and others in trades and professions.
Today, the city administration and council - in a city identified as the seventh-fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States - is tackling the housing shortage by having private developers build houses and apartments, reconditioning formerly blighted areas and encouraging construction of hotels.
Fewer residents, and taxable properties
The degree of the erosion of taxable properties and population can be seen in documents available at the city treasurer's office and in Mayor Gabriel J. Campana's research done for his four-year comprehensive housing plan.
Census workers in 2000 and 2010 canvassed the city and found that 30,706 people were living here in 2000. Ten years later, the population dwindled to 29,381. That's 1,325 fewer people.
Additionally, 12 years ago, the city had 9,575 taxable parcels, and today that number has decreased by 409, according to O'Connor.
The difference in property value between 2005, when a countywide reassessment was reflected, and today is not that noticeable, according to O'Connor's records.
For instance, in 2004, when the reassessment took place, the value of all taxable properties - residential, commercial and industrial - was listed as $608,834,094.
When reassessment took effect, that number jumped to $957,536,854 and tax rates were adjusted in keeping with the need for an equalized and level assessment among all properties. Jump forward eight years to 2012, and the taxable property value is nearly the same at $960,111,260.
"Reassessment didn't raise taxes," O'Connor said. "All it does is place a value of the properties at their current assessed value."
The tax rate in 2000 was 7.72 mills. That year, $4,617,201 in taxes were levied. In comparison, the tax millage assessed in 2012 is 10.58 mills, which generates $10,157,977 in taxes for the city, O'Connor said.
Payments in lieu of taxes
The impact on neighborhoods, especially those in and around the Williamsport Regional Medical Center, the Pennsylvania College of Technology and Lycoming College, and by non-profits, such as churches, schools and government offices, has been felt, but those organizations and others contribute payments to the city in lieu of taxes, according to Joseph Pawlak, city finance and budget officer.
For example, Susquehanna Health paid $55,781 in 2009; $69,375 in 2010 and $77,052 in 2011, Pawlak said.
Lycoming College provides a payment of $25,000 annually to the city, Pennsylvania College of Technology's contribution is $100,000 and Hope Enterprises was $20,000 over the past two years.
Lycoming County Housing Authority, which oversees the Section 8 rental assistance program with 513 families throughout the county, also provides a payment in lieu of taxes based on a percentage of rent on certain structures.
Several churches have contributed about $1,000 individually, Pawlak said.
In an explanation of why Susquehanna Health makes the payments, Stephen P. Johnson, president and CEO, said it is about being a good corporate neighbor.
"We pay the city payment in lieu of taxes as if that house was still there," Johnson said of the homes taken down for Project 2012. "We don't technically have to do that but we rely on the city police, Bureau of Fire and streets and parks departments."
Johnson said the health system wants its employees and residents to be healthy both in a physical sense and financially. If the city finds itself in hard financial times, that reflects on Susquehanna Health, he said.
Johnson said the other reason for the removal of the properties is that close to 90 percent of the houses, especially those between High Street and Park Avenue, from Louisa to Cherry streets and north to Rural Avenue, were in poor condition.
"The city encouraged us to acquire the housing stock and knock them down not only for our expansion cause but for safety and sanitary reasons," Johnson said. Conditions required the health system to clean up the neighborhood. "It goes back to when we committed to stay here."
Not more than three weeks ago, when council unanimously decried the removal of a single property the Williamsport Area School District demolished to make way for a parking lot at the new school on the former Roosevelt Middle School site in the 2800-2900 block of West Fourth Street, the loss of housing stock took center stage, again.
That also set in motion discussion about the balance to remove properties that need to be razed and creation of new taxable opportunities.
"There's two sides to the story," Councilman Randall J. Allison said. "Yes, we are losing the physical neighborhood in and around the hospital, but the issue with the house on West Fourth Street was one in which some on council believed that it could have been saved."
Allison said the hospital continues to pay the city taxes on the houses measured at the assessment value when the property was destroyed and that matters. The city is trying to mitigate loss of properties by sending letters to owners of vacant lots asking them to sell so that private developers can build townhouses, homes and apartments, he said.
Allison also pointed out other housing options under development such as conversion of the Brodart warehouse on Memorial Avenue into a residential area consisting of townhouses, apartments and two single family dwellings that would be built by Lycoming County Habitat for Humanity.
As for bolstering the tax base, Allison said a review of the demolition ordinance will help.
Allison believes the city is doing its part.
"We're looking at reviewing our demolition ordinance," he said.
With the YMCA moving near the medical center, leaving 6-acres open for development at its downtown site along West Fourth Street, Councilmen Jonathan Williamson, Hall and N. Clifford "Skip" Smith foresee opportunities for new taxes, wage, real estate and business and mercantile.
"Clearly, we have the issue of a lot of demolition in and around the medical center," Williamson said. "But we have to remember the agreements that were made between the city and hospital came in a different era.
"I think it's a positive to move the YMCA close to the medical center because we are removing certain properties but improving the value of what remains."
Williamson said he views the demolitions at the medical center as an extension of the commitment that the city and Susquehanna Health made to each other. "While loss in the short-term is regrettable, it provides opportunity for synergy between two non-profits around the hospital," Williamson said.
"Look at these demolitions," Smith said. "They are either on properties that are in the institutional zone where property owners knew they could be torn down eventually, or they are providing opportunity for developers to build on and provide jobs and wage taxes in the future," he said.
What Smith opposes is the loss of properties whenever non-profits, such as some churches, buy property.
"They allow the house to fall into disarray, and go before council with a request for demolitions, usually to create more parking availability," Smith said. "I would like to see a demolition ordinance saying what the use will be, how fast it will be developed and the option to put something of value on the property that returns money back to the city."
The concept by Campana and endorsed by the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce to see private development at the former YMCA site at West Fourth Street - labeled Destination 2014 - intrigues Williamson and Hall.
Ground-breaking on the YMCA site near the medical center is scheduled for August.
Seeing a mixture of residential, business and green space across from City Hall and in the former YMCA is seen as a win-win for the city and region.
"It would likely put a significant amount of property back onto tax rolls and link the Central Business District with the Historic District," Williamson said.
"My thinking is in terms of YMCA it's a good placement," Hall said. "It works well for people who use the hospital and can provide a place for (workouts), workers will have more day care opportunities and it there's no change because the hospital pays the taxes to the city."
The YMCA will build on the land and lease it from the hospital and the idea of the mayor to put mixed-use residential and commercial and green space in the former YMCA site has potential, Hall added.