Monessen school board rejects city council's tax pleas
By Rick Bruni Jr.
Published: Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 1:06 a.m.
MONESSEN – Despite a long presentation Tuesday by the city solicitor asking that school property tax be exonerated for three properties, a divided Monessen School Board refused the request.
In a 4-3 vote, the board denied city council's request for the following properties: a vacant lot at 255 Schoonmaker Ave., a vacant, dilapidated house at 18 Elm St., and the old Health Mart building at 500 Donner Ave.
Board members Kimberly Egidi, Cheryl Galilei and Cindy Pawelec voted to exonerate the taxes. Donna Fantuzzi, Maria Scuteri, Lee Johnson and Amy Bukowski voted no. Board members Sharon Mauck and Brett Lepresti were absent.
By the same vote, the board denied the sale of properties at 464 Parkway Ave. and Rear 208 Schoonmaker Ave. for bids received by the Westmoreland County Tax Claim Bureau – as recommended by the city.
City Solicitor Mark Shire spoke for more than 20 minutes, detailing the history of each property and the potential benefits of forgiving taxes he claimed the district would never collect.
Shire explained the house at 18 Elm St. was donated to the city and is on its demolition list. The lot could then be sold to a neighbor and returned to the tax rolls, he said.
The lot at 255 Schoonmaker was one of four taken over by the city redevelopment authority. He said that through an “oversight,” back taxes had not been forgiven on the parcel along with the other three.
As for the old Health Mart building, Shire said the city has been contacted by a prospective owner and forgiving back taxes could be the selling point.
The city had been trying for months to find a Georgia-based trust that purchased the building in 2005 and owes about $54,000 in taxes – $34,000 to the school district.
The trust eventually gave up its claim to the property.
Shire said the building is up for a free and clear sale, where a property is sold clear of liens or taxes, but the county had not yet acted on that petition.
“The city's belief is that if these taxes are forgiven and if there is someone interested in buying and developing it, then they would have the incentive,” Shire said.
“The idea is to get it into private hands, because it's an eyesore and public safety hazard. And the city is spending a minimal amount of money just to keep it from falling over.”
Scuteri proved a vociferous opponent, repeatedly questioning Shire and insisting she would vote “no.”
“If it is sold … that's the problem,” said Scuteri, claiming that forgiving overdue taxes would set a precedent.
“What you do in Monessen is you vacate a property and it ends up being forgiven. Is that what we're saying? I live on a street full of vacant houses. I'd love to know what's going to happen to those. … The city's not doing a thing with them.”
“We're spinning our wheels … and the city is spinning our wheels. … It's got to stop somewhere.”
“We're going on the pretense somebody is going to buy these, and what happens years later if they don't?” he asked.
Galilei, who conducted the meeting in board President Mauck's absence, said she voted yes because it was the only viable action.
“I want to see a working relationship with the city and gain momentum to see Monessen progress,” she said after the meeting. “The real question should be: ‘What if we do nothing?' Attorney Shire explained things to us, gave us clarity and I'm willing to work with him.”
There was controversy over the hiring of a final instructor for the 2013-2014 school year.
Although the board voted, 6-1, to hire Jennifer Joseph as an elementary teacher, Scuteri admonished her colleagues for taking more than three months to hire a candidate.
Johnson cast the lone dissenting vote.
“I would like to apologize to our five candidates for dragging this out for such a long time,” Scuteri said.
“It is a direct result of this board tying the hands of this administration and not allowing them to do their job. … They are perfectly capable of presenting us with qualified candidates, and we dragged our feet on this and I'm sorry about that. I would like to see things change in allowing this administration to run efficiently and effectively.”
Galilei cited “miscommunication,” adding the other four candidates were told they would not be hired so they could seek other jobs.
Former board member Roberta Bergstedt, during the public comment session, echoed Scuteri's sentiments.
She asked how candidates could be told they were not in contention for the position before official board action.
“I just think it was not a very a wise thing to do,” Bergstedt said. “The board should have hired (Joseph) when they hired the rest of them.”
Galilei took exception to the comments and said the board was justified in its time frame and action. She added the board might consider forming a hiring committee.
In other action, the board:
• Agreed to renovate the high school softball field for $8,975. The money will come from the general fund under maintenance.
• Entered into a contract with Centerville Clinics Inc. to conduct student medical exams and sports physicals at a cost of $7.50 per student. Superintendent Linda Marcolini said the contract provided a $10,000 savings from the previous contract.
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-684-2635.
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