WHEELING — City leaders gathered Thursday afternoon at a meeting of the Wheeling City Council’s Public Safety Committee to monitor efforts to crack down on owners of abandoned and dilapidated structures. And one councilman doesn’t think the city is where it should be in that effort.
Councilman Ben Seidler, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, has remained vigilant in his quest to clean up some of Wheeling’s run-down and run-down neighborhoods. A resident of Wheeling Island, Seidler since taking office has championed extensive community cleanup efforts and lobbied for the city to find more efficient and effective ways to target neglected properties.
At Thursday’s meeting, officials discussed the difficulties of cutting red tape to impose fines on owners who commit code violations. The process can be difficult when officials cannot identify or reach owners of neglected and abandoned properties. City leaders want to be able to issue fines, assess liens and take action to acquire properties and resolve issues.
“But the clock isn’t ticking until the judge’s gavel closes and declares that person has been found guilty of these violations,” City Attorney Rose Humway-Warmuth said, noting that the Legal Department of the city asked the judge to impose the maximum fine, but it remains at the discretion of the court.
“Why don’t we charge them daily or weekly?” Seidler asked. “I live in a neighborhood with hundreds of creepy properties there right now that are rotting. We have hundreds of properties in our city that are rotting, and it’s not getting better. I try to challenge people to come up with a solution.
picture by: Eric Ayres
Seidler said his intention was to bring people together to try to find a solution to this lingering problem with dilapidated properties. City leaders want to see fines initiated at the time of the citation and attaching them to the property, placing a lien on the property and possibly forcing a sale.
“At the end of the day, I’m just saying whatever’s happening now isn’t good enough,” Seidler said.
The city has been trying to crack down on dilapidated properties, and one of the ways it’s worked towards that has been a new non-emergency reporting system through the city’s partnership with GovPilot. The new app-based tool took functions from the Wheeling 311 non-emergency reporting system and integrated them into a smartphone app known as GovAlert. The new system modernizes the city’s approach to managing these public service demands, from code enforcement to issues related to public works, parks and recreation, and other city services.
Officials noted that more and more people are using the system and submitting “tickets” or reports of problems and violations.
“We’re down to about 478 open tickets being built and planned,” Seidler said.
“And we’re getting more every day,” said Tom Connelly, construction and planning manager, noting that reports of tall grass and similar issues increase at this time of year. Officials in the Code Enforcement Office are busy responding to reports. “They approach them however they can, and they add them themselves. When they are in the field to follow one, they add three more. So I don’t know if you’ll ever come out ahead with 25,000 packages in the city. But if you can get an organized approach to it, that’s where we’re at.
Connelly said department morale is high as the system is much more organized and efficient than ever. However, with more people using the new system, a higher volume of complaints are being received and there are only a handful of city staff in the Code Enforcement Department available to handle them at all. moment.
“We deal with them,” Connelly said. “Some people take longer than others to get rid of them. They go through the stages they need to go through in the most efficient way possible.
Some neighborhoods get far more calls than others, Connelly noted, and that can be attributed to the nature of residential density, property registries and neighborhood economic conditions.
In addition to Connelly, Thursday’s meeting was also attended by Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger, City Manager Robert Herron, Humway-Warmuth, City Clerk Brenda J. Delbert, Director of Development Nancy Prager, Constable Code Enforcement Officer Larry Helms and Councilman Dave Palmer, Vice Chairman of the Public Safety Committee. Committee member Rosemary Ketchum was not present.
City leaders also discussed the city’s current demolition list, which stood at 117 properties on Thursday.
The Wheeling City Council Public Safety Committee and Finance Committee recently backed a proposal to increase the city’s annual demolition budget to $1 million. This unprecedented effort doubles the demolition budget from last year’s total of $500,000, which was itself considered a considerable investment.
Helms said the estimated demolition cost of these properties is based on tax history, but a major factor that can influence the price is fuel costs and other operational increases that can be imposed by contractors in this struggling economy. .
“With 100 structures, we were right about $1 million,” Connelly said. “Some properties on the list, however, we have marked, but they will not be city demolitions. This is just our master demolition list, and some of them are private demolitions. But they are on our radar because if for some reason the owner fails, we know we have to step in.
Related issues were also discussed on Thursday, such as the possibility of creating a land reuse agency in the city, addressing police staffing needs, bringing back the city’s old Red X program and launch a plan to broadcast live municipal court proceedings.
No other municipality in the state is livestreaming the municipal court, but other cities across the country are, Seidler noted.
“West Virginia has a bad reputation for being last in so many things,” Seidler said. “I have absolutely no problem pushing the envelope to be the first in this state.”
The idea of bringing back the city’s Red X program was met with lukewarm support, as concerns about the effectiveness of landowner “shaming” raised something of a red flag.
“My desire to do something with these is less a matter of shame, but more of letting neighborhood residents and other citizens know that we’re actually working on it,” Seidler said. “A common question I hear is, ‘why aren’t you doing anything about it?’ In a neighborhood with 100 of these properties, I get this question all day, literally.
The Public Safety Committee is expected to meet again in June to follow up on a number of ongoing issues related to dilapidated structures and the efficiency and effectiveness of measures put forward to address them. .