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Vacant properties cost city taxpayers

Vacant residential properties with liens on them, most abandoned by the owners, are maintained on the city taxpayers’ dime and have been for years, city officials said.

This year, 15 properties are being maintained by the Bureau of Codes who hire contractors to cut lawns, deweed and pick up trash, said Joseph Gerardi, city codes administrator.

The properties are primarily residential and can have a structure on them or are lawns, he said.

The cost to maintain the properties is paid for through the city’s Clean and Seal program, which currently has about $28,000 in it, Gerardi said.

Some of the 15 properties are listed by the Blighted Property Review Board, a government entity that meets periodically at City Hall to go over which residential, commercial and industrial properties are blighted.

“It is an administrative issue,” said Councilman Randall J. Allison, who supports similar reviews of abandoned properties by council’s public works committee.

“See if there are different legal approaches that can be taken,” Allison said.

Gerardi said hiring a landscaping company is the most economical way to get grass mowed and properties up to shape on a regular basis.

But the legal challenge and lien process means there are always going to be properties throughout the city that remain on the Clean and Seal program list.

“We need to find more of a proactive way to get involved with some of these so that we can keep them from deteriorating to the point of where we have to do maintenance outside,” Allison said.

Part of the problem is what’s known as the “broken window effect.”

The phrase was coined in the 1990s. Essentially, if some property is allowed to deteriorate, then the less thoughtful, intoxicated or criminal may think it’s in bad shape already so they can throw their trash, trespass or break-in and do drugs, or break a window and nobody would care.

But Allison and Gerardi said most neighbors in the city do care and it is usually the absentee landlord who is irresponsible and set the ball rolling downhill.

Sometimes the properties have trash thrown on them from students walking home from school or college-aged students walking to and from a party or a bar, Allison said.

For taxpayers, however, the Clean and Seal budget needs to remain capped at that limit, he said.

“We would want to bring it down and not have to spend taxpayer dollars on irresponsible landowners and people,” Allison said.

Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said the blighted list is below 20 on any given month and when he came into office in 2008 it was about 182.

Over the years, he said, Gerardi, who had 22 years at Loyalsock Township in the same capacity, took over the department and the administration made cleaning up blight one of its goals.

The department regularly takes calls from homeowners about issues that require code enforcement, he said.

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