A man who owns a hulking, deteriorating brick building in Lansford has been ordered by a district judge to pay $9,000 in fines.
Bennett Verta Jr. said he will discuss with his attorney whether to to appeal District Judge Casimir Kosciolek's order. Kosciolek handed down the ruling after a hearing Monday in which he described the building as an "absolute eyesore." Verta has 30 days to appeal the order.
Verta faced $14,000 in fines - $1,000 for each of 14 violations written in September by Code Enforcement Officer Katheryn Labosky. The violations addressed the safety of the 401-425 W. Bertsch St building's roof and walls, and sanitation and cleanliness.
However, Kosciolek dropped five citations for violating the sanitation and cleanliness aspects of the borough property code after learning that Verta had made an effort to keep the grass mowed, fix broken windows and pick up pieces of the roof that had blown to the ground. That left nine citations for violating safety aspects of the code.
Verta, who gave his address as 401 W. Bertsch St., argued that because the building was up for tax sales, he is no longer the owner and therefore should not be fined. Nor could he sell the building because its ownership is now under the control of the Carbon County Tax Claim Bureau. His attorney, William J. Schneider of Hazleton, cited a 2002 Somerset County court case he said supported the argument.
Schneider produced a document Verta identified as a July 16, 2007, notice of the impending tax sale of the property. Verta said he "believed" the building went through the sales in May and on Nov. 13, and that the Tax Claim Bureau is now the property's trustee.
Borough solicitor Robert T. Yurchak countered that the court case differed from Verta's and therefore did not apply, and that district court was not the proper venue to determine a tax sale matter. He said there was no proof that the building actually went through the tax sale.
Besides, Verta's ownership is irrelevant, Yurchak said. Verta has been the owner and has been responsible for the building. Further, this is the first time Verta has mentioned that he does not have control of the property.
As recently as last month, Labosky spoke with him about turning the building over to the borough, but Verta said he still wanted to try to sell it.
"Not once did you indicate you didn't own the property," Yurchak said.
"Correct," Verta responded.
Under questioning by Schneider, Labosky said she checked tax records and deeds to see if Verta's name was still on record as the owner. She said she did not ask the Tax Claim Bureau about the sales.
A woman who answered the telephone at the Tax Claims Bureau said that only Director Renee Roberts could answer questions about the status of the property, and that she was out of the office until Monday.
On the stand, Verta acknowledged the building is in bad shape, but that he does not have the $100,000-$164,000 to repair it. He has fallen behind on mortgage payments. He said he expected to sign on an investor to help pay the costs, "but that fell apart."
He disagreed with Labosky's testimony about state of the roof. Labosky said the roof was caving in and that walls near the adjacent Panther Valley School District stadium appeared to be bowed. "The entire roof seems to be gone at this point," she said.
Verta said that part of the roof is missing because he dismantled it in preparation to make repairs. But he stopped planning the repairs after learning he'd have to buy a building permit to do the work, he said.
Yurchak said the borough is frustrated with Verta, who has been promising to fix the building, which he acquired to house his truck washing soap manufacturing business, EverBrite Industries. The business is "basically defunct," he said.
A year ago, Verta was before Kosciolek, who at the time found him guilty of keeping an unsafe building and fined him $1,000. Verta was given until Labor Day to get started on repairs.
But "nothing happened," Labosky said. Verta on Monday said he last worked on the building in the spring 2009. Labosky began issuing the 14 citations on Sept. 9, 2009.
Borough officials, including Yurchak and Labosky, say the building has deteriorated to the point of being a hazard. Labosky worries that a heavy snowfall could cause the remaining roof structure to fall in, collapsing walls and causing bricks to fall onto the street. "If you stand on Bertsch Street, you can see through the back part of the wall to the stadium," she said.
Yurchak asked Kosciolek to crack down on Verta, citing a history of "promises and delays."
"All we keep doing is giving him time," Yurchak said. "Now it's time to pay the piper."
Kosciolek agreed, saying that "Lansford has been more than fair" in handling the matter.