Council to vote on final vacant house registry

PARKERSBURG – City Council and its Finance Committee will consider more pieces of the mayor’s slum-and-blight initiative Tuesday.

The second and final readings of an ordinance establishing a vacant building registry and associated fees and another allowing the fire chief to appoint as many as eight assistant fire inspectors are on the agenda for the full council meeting, which starts at 7:30 p.m. in council chambers on the second floor of the Municipal Building.

The first reading for the vacant building registry passed 7-2 on June 10. It would assess a $100-a-month fee on residences vacant more than a year that are not being actively improved or sold.

Mayor Bob Newell has said the fee is an attempt to recover some of the taxpayer money spent on maintaining vacant, dilapidated properties.

Councilman John Kelly questioned the ordinance’s impact on certain circumstances in which a property is technically vacant, but well-maintained. On Friday, he said he would “most likely” make a motion to amend the ordinance to reflect such situations.

“If there’s a piece of property where it’s held by heirs and that property is well-maintained and has utilities turned on, it won’t qualify as a vacant property,” he said.

Newell said after the June 10 meeting he would consider making changes. On Friday, he said that after reviewing the ordinance with City Attorney Joe Santer, he did not feel any changes were needed.

“He did look at it, and changing the language just really makes it no use to even have it,” Newell said. “Well-maintained means it’s within code; it’s got eave spouts and the grass is being cut.”

There are some vacant structures that might fit that definition now, the mayor said, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be the target of break-ins, attract animals or become problems down the line when people stop maintaining them.

Newell also noted there is an appeal process that will allow the city to examine exceptions to the registry on a case-by-case basis.

But while every vacant house, under the ordinance, should be registered, Newell said situations like Kelly referred to won’t attract the attention of the city. The ones that deteriorate and draw complaints will.

“We’re looking at the ones that are vacant, have been vacant” and no one’s doing anything with, Newell said. “We’ll give them a reason to do something with it.”

Kelly said he still has reservations about the ordinance as a whole.

“I’m not real happy with the fee,” he said. “People that have some of those properties can’t afford to have the grass mowed. If they can’t afford to have the grass mowed, how in the world are they going to afford to pay some fee like that?”

Newell said the city almost never gets the money back that it puts into maintaining, acquiring and demolishing run-down properties.

“He’s (Kelly) not thinking this through,” the mayor said. “Should all of us taxpayers have to start using our money … to take up the slack for all of these slugs?”

During the Finance Committee meeting at 6 p.m. in the executive conference room, also on the second floor, council members and the mayor will discuss proposals aimed at providing business and occupation tax rebates as incentives to fix up vacant housing.

The first would amend the existing Vacant Building Revitalization Business and Occupation Tax Credit Program to include residential structures and lower the minimum period of vacancy from two years to one. Entities that rehabilitate such structures would be eligible to receive a B&O rebate equal to the amount of money they put into the building, up to 100 percent of their assessment over five years.

Newell said the goal is to put houses on the market.

“We are not creating a program for people to come buy these houses, put a little money in them and rent them again,” he said.

Another ordinance would create a similar program for rehabilitated or newly built multi-family dwellings. It would not, however, apply to single-family dwellings remodeled into multi-family units.

“It doesn’t do much for the neighborhood,” Newell said.

Also during the finance session, Parkersburg Utility Board Manager Eric Bennett will discuss with council a bond ordinance for up to $1 million to lease-purchase new vehicles and equipment for the utility. It appeared on the June 10 council agenda, but was never voted on because no one seconded Councilman Jim Reed’s motion.

Bennett contacted Reed, the chairman of the Finance Committee, and asked him to place the ordinance on the agenda for an upcoming committee meeting.

“It’s an opportunity to maybe have a little more open discussion about it,” Reed said.

After the June 10 meeting, some council members said they didn’t second the motion because they didn’t want the PUB to incur more debt after sewer rates were raised earlier this year. Bennett said the rates in place would cover the expenses.

“No one even asked him any questions or said why they were against it,” Reed said. “Maybe there was some misunderstanding by the council people; maybe there wasn’t. Maybe they’re just not going to go for it.

“I think either you come to a vote or you explain why you didn’t vote for it,” he said.