Gateway school board hosts intergovernmental meeting on land banking (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Officials from Monroeville and Pitcairn attended an intergovernmental meeting on land banking hosted by the Gateway school board last week.

“The purpose of this meeting is long-discussed issue of land banking, a procedure for getting delinquent property back on the tax rolls,’’ explained Janice Rawson, Gateway board member and committee chairwoman.

Amanda Settelmaier, executive director of the Turtle Creek Valley Council of Governments and Elizabeth Kosub, special projects coordinator, were on hand to answer questions at the Oct. 8 meeting.

The Turtle Creek Valley COG collaborated with the boards of directors of the Steel Valley and Twin Rivers COGs to facilitate a study of blighted, vacant and tax-delinquent properties in the region. The collaboration, called the Tri-COG Collaborative, consists of 40 municipalities in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh.

According to the executive summary of Tri-COG’s land bank business plan, “The key is to return abandoned, vacant, tax-delinquent properties to productive use.”

Once acquired, the land bank will maintain all properties it has in its “bank” and get them up to municipal and state codes. After the properties are refurbished, the land bank would sell them to the public.

“Land banking is a newly available tool to reduce blight and encourage development. It redirects a small fraction of the resources that local governments are already spending to address the problem, and redeploys them in a way that saves money, all while maximizing local control of the process,” the summary states.

“The land bank wants to be a good community partner,” Ms. Settelmaier said.

However, for it to move forward, Ms. Settlemaier said 10,000 participants are needed. That number can come from any combination of school districts or municipalities in the Tri-COG area.

The project is in its beginning stages and no school district or municipality has signed on yet.

The Tri-COG collaborative has identified 170 blighted/delinquent properties in Monroeville and Pitcairn that would be eligible for the land bank program.

Ms. Settelmaier said each municipality or school district that signs on would be responsible for 5 percent of the delinquent tax base as well as 50 percent of the tax recapture from the sold properties for five years.

For Gateway, that would mean a commitment of about $75,000 per year for five years, or a total of $375,000. The numbers would be lower for Monroeville and Pitcairn because it is based on millage rates.

“Gateway is taking a hit on here,” said school board member Robert Elms. He added that the district would not see any funds until the next countywide assessment.

Board member Skip Drumheller added that the cost adds up to about one teacher per year for the district.

Monroeville Mayor Gregory Erosenko is in favor of the program.

“It’s really simple — get the abandoned homes back on the tax rolls,” he said. “This is a really good program. It’s going to make all of our property values go up,” he added.

Ms. Rawson said she wasn’t sure how much the land bank would help the Gateway District.

“We don’t have as many [abandoned properties] as Wilkinsburg or Woodland Hills,” she said.

Board member Chad Stubenbort said that if the abandoned, delinquent properties the district does have were rehabilitated, it would have an effect on the surrounding properties, which would probably increase in value.

“We have fewer properties, but a much larger net gain,” Mr. Stubenbort said.

“Let’s say you decide you don’t want to do it. Over time, more blight will come to Monroeville. This is in vesting in your community,” Mr. Erosenko added.

“As a community and school district, we need to work better. The school district is very limited,” Mr. Elms said. “The school district really can’t afford $75,000.”

Ms. Settelmaier told officials that the school district is “the big winner here” because it receives more tax money than the municipalities.

“To me it’s a no-brainer,” Mr. Stubenbort said about the land bank. “This is 1/10,000th of our budget,” he said. Gateway’s budget for the current school year is $70 million.

Gateway board member Neal Nola agreed, saying, “I think it’s a no-brainer, too.”

Pitcairn officials were also in favor of the land bank program.

Dona Galia, a council member in Pitcairn, said it would benefit the school district and the borough.

“It could bring in starter homes that people could afford in Pitcairn,” Ms. Galia said.

Although relatively new in the Pittsburgh area, the concept of a land bank has been successful in places like Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Ms. Settelmaier said.

“There are hundreds of land banks across the country,” she said.

Further information on the Tri-COG land bank program can be found online at http://tcvcog.com/land-banking/.

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