Gateway School District still mulling land-bank concept
The Gateway School Board delayed for the second time a decision on whether to follow suit with Monroeville in signing on with a proposed multimunicipal land bank.
Board members voted to table a resolution during the meeting Oct. 29 that authorize district officials to sign an agreement that would allow a land bank to acquire and the renovate or repurpose properties within it.
The Turtle Creek Valley, Steel Valley and Twin Rivers councils of government — known as the Tri-COG Collaborative — devised the plan in line with a 2012 state law that allows a municipality to establish a land bank with the authority to acquire blighted and tax-delinquent properties.
“It’s our job to try and find solutions to these regional problems,” said Amanda Settelmaier, executive director of the Turtle Creek Valley COG.
Gateway Solicitor Bruce Dice described the process for sheriff’s sale for tax-foreclosed properties in Pennsylvania as “cumbersome,” and the new owners of these properties must go through a lengthy process to settle tax liens attached to them.
“There’s no statutory authority to forgive taxes,” Dice said.
“That’s one advantage of the land banks.”
By contrast, state law allows taxing entities that belong to a land bank to discharge liens on properties the land bank acquires.
A business plan circulated by the COGs calls for municipalities that plan to join the land bank to pass an ordinance before the end of this year, and Monroeville council — with the support of Mayor Greg Erosenko — passed an ordinance in September that allows the municipality to participate.
Because state law requires approval from all three taxing jurisdictions within a community — the school district and county and municipal governments — Gateway could stymie Monroeville officials’ plans to sign on if the board rejects the plan.
School board Vice President Chad Stubenbort said he asked to table the land-bank resolution on Oct. 29 to let some board members “gather their thoughts” before making a decision.
He said he plans to raise the issue at the board’s Nov. 19 meeting if he expects it to pass.
Membership in the land bank comes with a financial obligation based on the amount of collected delinquent real-estate taxes.
For Gateway, that would be about $75,000 — higher than Monroeville’s or Pitcairn’s.
Some members of the school board have said in previous meetings that money might be better spent elsewhere.
“It sounds like a great program, but I want to make sure we’re not wasting taxpayers’ money,” board member Stephanie Byrne said during a board study session earlier last month.
If district officials reject the COGs’ proposal, Pitcairn — where, at $35,000, the median property value is less than one-third of Monroeville’s — will be unable to join. Borough Councilman Rollo Vecchio said he hopes the school board approves the proposal.
“People in Pitcairn feel it is badly needed,” Vecchio said.
While Gateway officials have stalled on the vote, the COGs have made progress elsewhere.
Forest Hills officials passed a similar ordinance in September.
Woodland Hills School District Superintendent Al Johnson said his board plans to vote on whether to join the land bank during a meeting later this month.
Forest Hills borough manager Steve Morus said blight and tax delinquency are not as common there as in some more depressed areas.
The borough has demolished three abandoned houses within the past two years.
Morus said he’d rather see such properties purchased and renovated, and the land bank could be a way to “get ahead of the game” by giving the borough an additional tool to fight blight.
“You don’t want to have an empty lot,” he said. “(Demolition) should be a last resort.”
Gideon Bradshaw is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-871-2369 or [email protected].