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Property debate sparks spat between Latrobe mayor, manager

Jeff Himler
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Jeff Himler | Tribune-Review
This lot at Latrobe’s Main Street and Lincoln Avenue, now cleared of a run-down building, was sold by the Westmoreland County Land Bank to the nonprofit Latrobe Foundation on Jan. 16, 2019.

The changing of locks on an office door at the municipal building and the sale of a blighted property by the Westmoreland County Land Bank brought a rift between Latrobe’s mayor and its city manager public.

“You don’t report to anybody,” Mayor Rosie Wolford told Wayne Jones. “None of us know when you’re on vacation or know when you’re leaving the office for half a day…. You think we work for you.”

The two argued Monday during a council agenda meeting about the city’s chain of command in relation to Jones’ contract. Wolford accused Jones of displaying a lack of communication and said he should have provided her with a key to his office after he recently changed the lock.

Wolford is a voting member of council and presides over its meetings. She contends Jones’ contract requires him to report directly to her. Jones insists that he reports to council, but to Wolford specifically only when she is leading a council meeting — an interpretation that wasn’t supported by city solicitor Zachary Kansler.

Wolford also suggested Jones may have addressed private business concerns, via email, while on duty for the city. Jones argued he is entitled to some leeway regarding such private communications.

“Three emails, I think, in five years is infrequent,” he said, expressing concern about being micro-managed.

Council adjourned to an executive session to continue discussing personnel matters.

After emerging about 40 minutes later, Jones suggested the arguments related to his contract were “minor issues.”

The mayor’s criticisms at the public meeting came as “somewhat of a surprise,” he said. “Honestly, I think we have had a good working relationship. I don’t always agree with her, and she doesn’t always agree with me. That’s the way relationships are.”

Wolford later said, “I have concerns and I have issues, and I hope we can get them addressed and move forward.”

She said council may need to consider if there is a discrepancy between the city charter and the manager’s contract and may need to revisit the city personnel policy.

The public debate began when Councilman Jim Kelley asked why council hadn’t been notified when the county-affiliated land bank recently sold a lot at Lincoln Avenue and Main Street. Kelley noted Latrobe officials had asked that they be apprised of such sales.

After a dilapidated structure was razed, the parcel was sold Jan. 16 to the nonprofit Latrobe Foundation for $15,000, land bank officials confirmed. The foundation plans to landscape the lot and maintain mini gardens at the site, President Chuck Mason said.

The property should remain on the tax rolls as long as it is owned by the foundation, land bank officials said. For five years, taxes will be split between the city and land bank to help it recoup costs for razing a building at the site. After that, the city will receive all of the tax payments for the property.

The land bank has partnered with 23 local municipalities including Latrobe, where it has worked with the council and mayor to acquire and sell 17 properties, investing “more than $300,500 in public and private dollars to demolish blighted structures,” April Kopas, executive director of the nonprofit land bank, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the city on future revitalization projects.”

Kelley voiced concern that the property at Lincoln and Main is among a growing number being sold to nonprofits and reduced to open lots, resulting in a hit to Latrobe’s tax base. Jones estimated about 20 percent of the property in the city is owned by nonprofits.

“We should have our own plan on how to get these properties back on the tax roll,” Kelley said, suggesting the city should have the first right to purchase properties in Latrobe held by the land bank. “Let’s be more active in marketing the property.”

Wolford said the city was fortunate the previous owner donated the property to the land bank. She noted the city had more than three years to do something with the property but took no action, and no other buyers came forward during that time.

“I don’t want falling-down buildings here,” Wolford said. “I would rather have a vacant lot with grass on it than a building that is destroying (the appearance and value of) the rest of the neighborhood.”

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter @jhimler_news.