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Monessen still plans to acquire properties

| Tuesday, March 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Despite a recent impediment by two Westmoreland County commissioners, Monessen Mayor Mary Jo Smith and council still expect to acquire 273 city properties for their Downtown Redevelopment Project.

Smith and council are planning to approve a motion at Wednesday's regular monthly meeting to purchase the properties from the county's Tax Claim Bureau. The original plan had Monessen acquiring the properties for $1 each.

However, any acquisition will not take place without first gaining approval from the commissioners.

On Thursday, the county's two Republican commissioners, Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney, stalled the deal, saying they hoped to first attempt to secure grant money from the state. Democratic Commissioner Ted Kopas supported selling the properties to Monessen.

The properties are in repository after the county took ownership for unpaid taxes. If the commissioners refuse to sell, the properties could remain in ownership limbo for an undetermined time.

“I believe the commissioners will work this out with us,” Smith said Monday. “I believe they're trying to work out a way that there will be a little more compensation than $1 per property.”

Smith and other city officials will meet next week with Jason Rigone, executive director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corporation, in hopes of reaching a compromise with the county.

Smith and City Administrator John Harhai said the commissioners are concerned that the county absorbed approximately $200,000 in administrative costs after placing the properties in repository. However, when questioned by Councilman Josh Retos, Smith and Harhai acknowledged the city would assume liability on the properties once they were acquired.

Smith said afterward that fact should be another motivation for the county to sell the properties.

“I think why the Industrial Development Corporation got involved is (the commissioners) think there are grants out there the county can apply for and maybe take care of some of the costs so the commissioners don't feel they're taking a $200,000 loss on this property,” Smith said.

“I feel that it's a $200,000 loss any way they look at it because while it sits there in repository, they're not collecting one penny off of it. They have to maintain their books and it's their property … so they have a liability issue for all 273 properties in Monessen if something happened on those properties.”

If the deal goes through, city officials will not only prevent the properties from being sold to absentee owners who “flip” them for a profit and stick the city with unpaid taxes and either maintenance or demolition costs, but to attract artists as a key component in converting the city into a cultural and arts center.

Harhai said about one-third of the properties still contain standing structures. Which structures could be fixed and which would be demolished would be determined after the city puts out requests for proposals on each parcel of property, Harhai said.

A request for proposal is a document that municipalities post to elicit bids from potential vendors for a product or service.

“What may happen is we'll go block by block, and say one has 10 homes on it and maybe five can be rehabbed and five need to be taken down,” Harhai said. “Then we have to determine how many new homes we have to put in.”

The commissioners on Thursday said they were delaying the deal for at least 30 days. Smith and company are saying the sooner, the better.

“I would like to have the first request for proposal put out as soon as the city can acquire the properties,” Smith said.

“That would be the start to bring the artisans in … and (determine) what kind of a deal we would have to entice families to move here.

“If we can get families to move here you have artisans willing to do different things in the community, you bring in kids to increase the population in the school district and the population of Monessen and you put properties back on the tax rolls, which increases revenue the city generates.”

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbruni@tribweb.com or 724-684-2635.

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