(The Center Square) — Rundown properties are a problem in every county in Pennsylvania, and a bill would make permanent a new tax counties can impose to raise funds for demolition.
SB439, sponsored by Sen. David Argall, R-Berks/Schuylkill, would remove a 10-year sunset provision from Bill 152 of 2016 that allows counties to create a demolition program to demolish run-down properties. Otherwise, the program would expire in 2027, when it could be assessed for renewal.
Twenty-four counties have established demolition program fees, which add a $15 charge to each county-registered deed and mortgage. The attempt to make the program permanent, however, raised some questions.
“It seems to me that the point of going through a type of program that’s supposed to achieve certain goals, and one way to do that is to stop it, give it time to evaluate it – why rush to get it over with with the sun setting now when it’s supposed to disappear in 2027?” said Eric Montarti, research director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. “There’s plenty of time left.”
Montarti has tracked the effects of the demolition program in Allegheny County, trying to determine what happens to properties after demolition and the effects on property values in neighborhoods. What’s needed, Montarti said, is “an assessment to say, ‘this is a worthwhile business here’.”
Fee revenue varies widely by county. More urban counties tend to do better: Allegheny County generated over $2 million in 2020 according to its annual report and Delaware County generated $774,000 in 2021. Rural locations like Venango County or Somerset County, however, generated $31,000 and $75,000, respectively, in 2021 and 2020. For counties with low populations, such a fund may not be enough to cover its need to fight the scourge.
Indiana County, a rural county that has been losing population since the 1990s, has not created a demolition fund. To deal with the blight, programs like a land bank might work in Pittsburgh but not in Indiana, said LuAnn Zak, deputy director of the Indiana County Planning Office. “You can’t just jump in and do these land banks,” Zak said.
“You don’t want to go out and just buy all the properties because then they’re in your repository,” Zak said. “If a land bank is going to get a hold of a property, take possession of it, well, you pretty much have to know there’s a buyer on the other end once you’ve cleared that property.”
Rural counties also have a problem with staffing and funding programs.
“What I find in all the programs, not just the scourge, in all the programs that come from the federal government or the states, is a lack of financial support to the county or the local people who administer the programs,” said said Zack. “There is no money to pay staff.”
There are many facets to the fight against the blight, and rural counties can also struggle to fund actions that prevent a property from deteriorating in the first place.
“Code enforcement is huge, a key factor from my perspective,” said Josh Krug, assistant director of planning for Indiana County.