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Jeannette will consider fee for rental properties

| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Jeannette officials say they hope to generate revenue and contain the blight in some neighborhoods by tightening oversight of rental properties.

Council will consider an ordinance that would require a rental fee or tax and enable officials to track tenants who are not paying earned income tax.

Mayor Richard Jacobelli cited other municipalities that have adopted such fees, including McKeesport and Connellsville, and require landlords to provide lists of tenants and undergo annual property inspections.

“There are people who are under the radar and aren't paying their EIT because the city doesn't know who the tenants are,” Jacobelli said.

Rental properties are inspected only when tenants move out or move in. Landlords don't always report the change in occupants, said city attorney Scott Avolio.

“A ton of them go unnoticed or unreported,” he said.

Jeannette has reached the permitted ceiling on the property tax rate, so officials are looking for other ways to generate income. Council raised the earned income tax from 1.15 percent to 1.5 percent this year and has been successful in forcing residents to pay delinquent garbage bills.

Under a recent ordinance in Connellsville, once a building is deemed vacant or abandoned, its owner must register the property with the city within 45 days. An annual inspection is required.

The annual fee to register a building is $30 for a one-family or two-family dwelling, $50 for a multi-family dwelling for the first year and $100 for commercial structures for the first year. The fees will increase annually for multi-family dwellings and commercial structures in the subsequent two years.

Jeannette Councilman Mark Levander, who owns rental property in the city, had some objections to the proposal.

“I see advantages of some form of regulation, some sort of inspection,” he said. “I don't want more regulation. I don't want more rules.”

Levander said council should focus on the owners of blighted properties and force them to pay delinquent taxes.

The owners of seven parcels listed for sheriff's sale next month owe a total of $223,000, according to tax records. The city's share of that is 24 percent, or $53,520.

“We want to capture some revenue that has been eluding the city,” Jacobelli said. “It doesn't sound like a whole lot of money, but any money coming in to the city will help the bottom line.”

Out-of-town landlords are a problem, officials said. Some won't comply with maintenance laws and ignore citations from the city. One absentee landlord is New York businessman Abe Zion of Zion Bullitt, who owns the former Jeannette Glass property.

The city has tried for years to get the company to clean up hazardous waste and toxins at the site. Zion Bullitt stopped cleanup work this summer, claiming the company was denied access to the property.

The claim is “garbage,” Avolio said. “They just stopped working.”

He said the city will cite Zion Bullitt for violating the building maintenance code. Avolio said part of the fence around the plant is collapsing, the tall smokestack is leaning and metal and a “whole host of things” are hanging precariously from buildings.

The former PNC Bank building on Clay Avenue also is falling into disrepair, said Diana Reitz, community development director. Avolio said the owner, a New York-based real estate company, has ignored letters asking for a cleanup.

The city's code enforcement officer said he has concerns about other structures along Clay Avenue, the heart of the business district. Ed Howley said there are serious structural problems with a building that once had a gym and another that houses the former Family Dollar store, which he said is particularly bad.

“It's pretty scary going into that building,” Howley said.

Owner Frank Trigona disputes that assessment.

“That building will be there another hundred years,” he said.

Reitz warned the city could face opposition from preservation groups if Jeannette tried to force the demolition of the buildings because of their “potentially historic” value. The city would have to justify the demolition to the state and federal government, she said.

“Once you tear those down, you ruin the integrity of the business district,” Reitz said. “You lose your history.”

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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