City Council Rejects Land Bank
Land Bank Update
August 19, 2015
Hazleton lacks the financial resources and manpower for launching and maintaining a local land bank program, council members said when formally rejecting the proposal Tuesday.
With Luzerne County officials considering their own land bank program and a regional land bank program currently serving Pittston and at least four other municipalities, Hazleton City Council members say they want to take a wait-and-see approach before launching a local program.
Council ultimately voted 3-1 when nixing a land bank program and ordinance introduced by Councilman Jeff Cusat. Councilman Keith Bast did not attend.
“The City of Hazleton is in financial difficulty right now,” Councilman Dave Sosar said prior to the vote. “How are we going to come up with extra money to develop a land bank? I’m very hesitant. I’m not saying it’s not a good idea. I’m saying it’s a good idea on a larger level.”
President Jack Mundie agreed with Sosar, saying that while he doesn’t oppose the concept of a land bank, he questioned the timing of Cusat’s proposal and whether the city would be in a better position to address blighted and tax-delinquent properties by passing laws designed to bring properties owned by financial institutions up to code.
“I think that it’s a good tool that could probably help the city, but you need money, resources (and) people,” Mundie said of land banks. “I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. I’m not totally against it. Maybe it’s something that should be addressed later.”
Council Vice President Jean Mope, meanwhile, said the city should wait and see whether Luzerne County creates its own land bank program and possibly follow through with an idea pitched by audience members about having Hazleton participate in the county’s initiative.
“The county gets better funding,” Mope said. “If we pursue it and run short on funding I don’t want it to fall back on taxpayers.”
Mope also said she had concerns about how the city would come up with start-up funds — and said the city administrator made a similar point when she questioned him about finances.
Cusat told council that he doesn’t want to squander an opportunity to team with Pennsylvania Housing Alliance, which has committed to helping the city establish a local land bank even though it faces it own set of financial challenges in 2016 and beyond.
The councilman also publicly questioned Luzerne County’s willingness to help the city should it create a county-run program.
“If we pass an ordinance, they’re willing to help us … with the legal (aspects),” Cusat said. “The county is never going to give us anything. We’re always going to be the kid with the short stick.”
Disappointed with the outcome, Cusat lashed out at council for passing on the program.
“I spent two years working on the land bank,” Cusat said. “They were well aware it was in the process (of being organized). It seems to me that everybody wants to be a follower and see what everybody else is doing. No one wants to come up with ideas and be innovative. We don’t need to wait around to see what other cities are doing. If you never try it, you’ll never know if it works.”
Cusat pitched the land bank as an efficient and cost effective means of returning blighted and tax-delinquent properties back on the tax rolls.
According to the ordinance, the land bank would return “vacant, blighted, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties to productive use.” The city and its redevelopment authority would identify surplus vacant properties for the land bank to acquire.
It would acquire a property through donation, purchase or any other legal means, including tax sale, judicial sale or by transfer from Luzerne County Tax Claim Bureau.
The land bank will hold properties in its name and could opt to sell them to a developer and set a deadline for renovations and returning it to the tax rolls or can take smaller parcels and offer to split them among two neighboring property owners — and have the land maintained and put back on the tax rolls, Cusat said.
At least six audience members who spoke about Cusat’s land bank proposal either offered alternatives or asked council to delay a vote until county council decides whether to move forward with a similar program.
Attendee Dee Deakos asked what the land bank would do differently than Hazleton Redevelopment Authority, which has been working to renovate and sell properties in the East End neighborhood.
Audience member Mark Rabo told council that while federal Community Development funds can be used to fund a land bank program, the land bank must specify the intended use for each property before it can expend the funds. Rabo called on council to allow the city’s blighted property and redevelopment authority boards to perform their duties before considering a local land bank program.
Audience member Grace Cuozzo said the program will create unnecessary property maintenance costs and urged the city to continue on its path of using Neighborhood Stabilization Program and HOME grants for renovating properties.
County council candidate Ray Gustave urged council to delay a vote until the county decides on its program. Steve Franco of the Northeast Realtors Group argued that land banks should not be competing for properties with the private sector.
Mundie thanked Franco and Gustave for their comments and publicly lobbied for voters to support county council candidates Gustave, Rabo and Robert Schnee in the upcoming election.