Maintaining the hundreds of vacant or foreclosed properties in Penn Hills is a full-time job, and then some, according to the municipality’s code enforcement director.
“(The work) doesn’t end,” said John McCafferty, code enforcement director.
As of January, however, McCafferty’s team of five officers has a job that is a little less cumbersome.
The municipality partnered with a company that collects fees associated with owning a vacant or foreclosed property and is using some of the money to push back against illegal dumping within Penn Hills.
Municipal manager Scott Andrejchak said the company’s efforts so far have generated around $42,000 and he expects more to come.
The company, Florida-based ProChamps, tracks down lien holders and property owners of vacant properties that have not paid a vacant property registration fee, which is $400 in Penn Hills.
So far, 547 property owners have been identified through the software, said Kevin Sidella, the company’s director of sales. Of those, 344 have paid a registration fee and Sidella is confident the company will secure registrations from the rest of the 203 property owners by the end of the year.
“This is a sophisticated platform for Penn Hills and it gives the municipality the means of communication to talk with the property owner or manager,” Sidella said, adding that ProChamps, which serves around 40 other communities in Pennsylvania, collects $100 from every registration in Penn Hills as a service fee.
The company also records the property’s owner contact information and other details about the condition of the property in an accessible database, a resource that McCafferty finds invaluable – mostly because his department has more time now to enforce the municipality’s codes.
“We used to have one guy do that sort of stuff, now that person can actually go out and do his job,” he said, which includes cutting grass, picking up garbage and identifying possible demolition sites.
“For the most part, our work is making sure the community is more livable,” said McCafferty, who has worked in Penn Hills’ code enforcement department since 1995.
His team has been busy, especially since 2008.
“We were one of the highest concentrations of foreclosure activity in the county, possibly the state,” Andrejchak said.
There have been 2,457 foreclosures on properties within Penn Hills since the 2008 market crash, making it difficult to keep up with those structures and properties that are no longer maintained, Andrejchak said. He was citing data available through the ProChamps software.
“Some of those foreclosures mean vacant homes,” he said. “Right now, recently, we’ve been getting a lot of grass complaints. In the past, it was difficult for us to send a notice or a complaint to a bank in Switzerland that owns a property in Penn Hills.”
That task, he said, is now handled primarily by ProChamps.
Andrejchak said one of his goals when he became the municipality’s manager in September was to improve upon code enforcement.
“We want to be able to do what we’re doing better and more efficiently,” he said, which includes investing more in the department’s technology used to keep tabs on unkempt properties.
But it also includes putting an end to illegal dumping in Penn Hills, Andrejchak said.
In a 2017 study, Allegheny Clean Ways, an affiliate of Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, counted 43 illegal dump sites located within Penn Hills. Most were located less than 100 feet from homes along roadways and wooded hillsides, the report said.
“It’s atrocious in some places – it needs to stop. And it’s going to stop,” Andrejchak said.
In years past, Penn Hills would place dumpsters at some dump sites to have public works fill them. The contract with Republic Services, the municipality’s garbage removal company, allows five free dumpsters a year – but Public Works Superintendent Scott Shepard has said Penn Hills uses anywhere from 10 to 20 per year.
Each additional dumpster cost $500.
To fight back against the issue, Andrejchak said council adopted an ordinance that boosts the fine for dumping up to $500 to $2,000, plus cleanup costs. Before the updated ordinance was enacted in May, the fines ranged from $50 to $500.
The municipality is also giving surveillance cameras another go. Penn Hills used state grant money in 2018 to purchase three cameras, which never produced a culprit.
Using money generated from ProChamps, McCafferty said the municipality has deployed eight cameras this spring, along with signage warning potential dumpers, around the municipality and is hopeful they will catch the actor in progress.
“We have some leads on people who have been dumping,” he said, declining to say where the cameras are located.
Andrejchak hopes the elimination of illegal dumping will have a trickle-down effect that will lead to cleaner properties and neighborhoods.
“We’re having a change of attitude now. And that’s why (illegal dumping) is going to stop … we mean business,” Andrejchak said.