Coaldale borough council on Tuesday asked code enforcement officer Mark Richards to be more aggressive in citing the owners of dilapidated properties and discussed ways to track down the properties' absentee owners and pay for demolition costs after hearing complaints from a number of residents.
Lillian Halada asked council's help with a property at 22 E. High St., which she said has been vacant for several months. A trampoline remains in the back yard, which Halada worried would attract children who could get hurt. The grass is high, and old furniture and garbage are strewn about. "The smell is getting to us," she said. 'Why isn't anything being done?"
According to Schuylkill County tax records, the home, a half-double, belongs to the Atkinson Real Estate Group, which bought it for $18,000 in 2007. The owner is listed as Frank Atkinson, of 247 Doney Run, Weatherly.
Richards said he sent Atkinson a violation notice, but believes he is now in New York. Solicitor Michael Greek said police can issue citations and take the owners before Distict Judge Stephen Bayer of Tamaqua after a certain number of days if the property owner fails to act within a certain number of days after the violation notice is sent.
Halada said she saw a violation notice on the door of 22 E. High St. and that it had been there at least 22 days.
Richards said a citation will be issued, and that the borough would likely have to clean the place up.
That prompted council president Sue Solt to note that the borough is handling an increasing number of property complaints, and that the borough cannot afford to have its workers routinely cut grass and clean up trash. Although the borough charges the owners of the properties for the work, getting the money is tough, she said. She urged Richards to "be more aggressive:" in pursuing the owners.
"The borough workforce is not a property-tender," she said.
Councilman Joe Hnat took Richards to task for not citing property owners. He said no citations were issued in May or June. Richards, who works a full-time job in addition to being code enforcement officer, said he's doing the best he can under the circumstances.
He said this is "the worst year we've had for complaints" about properties.
Councilman Steve Tentylo asked how much money the borough gets from fines against the property owners.
Not much, other council members replied.
Councilman Tom Keerans asked about another vacant, trashed home, at 132 W. Ridge St. In May, a resident complained the property was attracting rats. Richards said he has been unable to track down the owner, but said he heard she was living in town. Tentylo said borough workers cut through the fence a couple of weeks ago to cut the grass.
Councilman David Yelito said he was concerned about borough workers having to clean out trash-strewn homes because of possible health hazards. Greek suggested hiring contractors to do that work.
Ann and Charles Miller asked council to help with a derelict home at 171 Second St. The Millers live in the adjoining duplex. Ann Miller said the problem had been going on for 25 years. The home's windows are now boarded up, but the property has been left to deteriorate.
Another resident, Maury Rutch, would like to buy the home for a business, she said. Rutch, who also attended the meeting, confirmed that.
The home is owned by Joseph and Patricia Black, Hnat said. Black has become notorious for buying vacant homes and letting them rot. However, the 171 Second St. property is in compliance with borough code, now that the windows are boarded, he said.
Greek said Black "has a tendency to pay his fines, but then the problems aren't corrected." He said the Millers could start a civil suit against Black if their own home is affected by Black's negligence.
"This guy is shrewd," Hnat said. "We can't win."
According to county property tax records, the Blacks own properties at 250 W. Water St., 223 Ridge St., 215 Ridge, 70 First St., 207 E. Ridge St., 77 Second St., 75 Second St., and 171 Second St.
He bought the properties in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the county records.
Council asked Richards to inform Black he has a buyer for the property.
Bill Strauch complained of high grass at 7 E. Phillip St., and Mike Doerr said a building at 146 Fisher Ave. is in bad shape, with its roof caving in and porches falling down. Jamie Lee Nicholas complained about burned-out buildings near his Greenwood Street home.
In addition to being unable to find many absentee property owners, council is stymied by the cost of demolishing the bad buildings: It has some money, about $4,000, in a demolition fund it started last year. But tearing down buildings costs a lot more than that.
Council will look into grants, but even government money won't be enough. Council faces the prospect of either "slashing services or jacking up taxes," Keerans warned.
Greek, however, said council could borrow from its sewer fund, but would have to pay back the money. Further, he said, the borough must own a property before it can demolish it. Money has to be there before the borough buys a building, because it would be liable if anyone is hurt as a result of the building's condition.