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Monessen acquiring 246 tax-delinquent properties from county

| Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, 1:06 a.m.

The City of Monessen's new administration is moving ahead with a plan to acquire hundreds of tax-delinquent properties from Westmoreland County.

Mayor Lou Mavrakis said after Monday's council work session that he's working with the Westmoreland County Department of Planning & Development to transfer 246 properties to the city in the next couple months.

Council approved a measure to acquire the properties in December under former Mayor Mary Jo Smith.

The county will receive $92,400 to cover administrative costs for the properties, 27 of which will be placed on a list for demolition, according to Councilman Josh Retos.

Mavrakis said the county will take an aerial picture of the city to catalog the properties, then meet with city officials to decide which homes will be demolished.

Five houses are already on a separate list for imminent demolition, Retos said.

“Once they come in, they will designate the houses for demolition and then we will decide which ones to tear down,” Mavrakis said.

Mavrakis said $50,000 from the 2014 Community Development Block Grant will be marked for demolition work, adding “$50,000 isn't going to demolish much.”

The CDBG money still has to come through, and Mavrakis lamented that much has already been earmarked by the previous administration for parks and recreation, including $200,000 in matching funds to restore the City Park amphitheater.

Under Mavrakis' plan, properties that can be improved will be offered to neighboring property owners for purchase.

If those residents do not wish to purchase the properties, then they will be placed on the open market, Retos said.

In addition, the Mon Valley Initiative is planning to develop 13 apartment units in the former Eisenberg's department store on Schoonmaker Avenue.

The Mon Valley Initiative, which owns the building, is a nonprofit community and economic development group based in Homestead.

Retos said the city wants to first guarantee that no low-income or Section 8 housing units will be established in the building.

“They own the building; we don't a have a vested interest or a contract,” Retos said. “We're just saying, ‘We love your program, let's rock and roll.'”

On Wednesday, council plans to hire city businessman Donald “Buzzy” Byron as its full-time code enforcement officer for an approximate $40,000 annual salary.

The position has been open since Rich DiMascio resigned on Jan. 3.

Byron, who owns Buzzy Byron's Aquarium and Hobbies on Schoonmaker Avenue and has worked construction since 1973, said city officials approached him about taking the position.

However, Byron said his duties will quadruple and include work as a code enforcement officer, plumbing inspector, building inspector, demolition supervisor, and an in-house contractor.

Byron said he has to take a certification test in Harrisburg, adding he's already certified as a master plumber and has a contractor's license.

Byron said his construction company will continue to perform smaller jobs, but will no longer take on large-scale jobs because he is losing two longtime employees to health problems.

Council is expected to hire city resident Carole Baker as a full-time accounts and finance clerk at $9.50 per hour, without benefits, and Jamie Hurst as a part-time meter maid at $7.25 per hour.

Baker will replace Holly Minno, who was promoted to city clerk in January following the retirement of Rosalie Nicksich.

Mavrakis asked residents to be patient with snow removal after the city recently ran out of salt. Mavrakis said he's fielded numerous angry calls this past week, adding his wife, Glenda, had to miss a day of work last week because of poor road conditions.

Adding to the dilemma, two city trucks recently broke down and at least one might have to be replaced, Mavrakis said.

Minno said the city just received 250 tons of road salt and some additional anti-skid material. Retos added the city is now “capped” for its 2014 salt contract, which could present problems later in the year.

If the city needs any additional salt, it would have to pay the “going rate”, he said.

The city may look into borrowing salt from the state, but it involves a cumbersome application process and approval from several government agencies, Minno said.

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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