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Often a top issue in city hall, blight fight lacks funding



Published: Tue, May 22, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Public officials in the Valley say eliminating blight already is getting maximum attention.

YOUNGSTOWN -- For Mayor George M. McKelvey, heightening the priority the city puts on erasing blight isn't an issue.

"It can't be made a higher priority," he said. "It's my highest priority already."

Other city and suburban leaders take similar positions. Most have little hope of doing much more. Instead, they point to successes after having put more focus on the topic in recent years.

Most of his workday is spent addressing neighborhood problems, the vast majority of them blight-related, McKelvey said.

City services are directly tied to revenue. The city has spent more on quality of life issues the past couple years after tight budgeting to get out of state fiscal watch, McKelvey said.

For example, the city has added three housing inspectors, paved more streets each year than usual, funded improvements to parks and is fixing sidewalks for the first time in many years.

The city handles many blight-related issues that it's not legally required to, he said. That includes mowing 3,000 empty lots, demolishing 300 to 400 homes a year and spending close to 85 percent of its federal money on housing rehabilitation.

"I could go on and on," McKelvey said.

Money's tight: The mayor said he would spend more on eliminating blight if more money became available. He doesn't hold much hope, however, of increasing spending. Tighter budgets, not more spending, are in the future because the local and national economies are turning downward, he said.

The mayor said he shares the concerns of residents frustrated by neighborhood deterioration. For every unhappy resident, however, there is one who has had a problem solved by city hall during his term, he said.

McKelvey said he isn't making excuses. The city is doing the best it can in the face of the overwhelming problem and its limitations.

"The challenges are unlimited," he said. "It's an ongoing process."

Campbell: The situation is worse in Campbell, said Mayor John Dill.

The aging city doesn't have the tax base to even start clearing most of its eyesores, he said. Campbell spends about $15,000 a year demolishing run-down, vacant homes. The city needs at least $200,000 to start making a real difference, Dill said.

"It's the revenue we don't have. The funds just aren't there," he said. "It's so bad it's unbelievable."

Groups such as churches are doing what they can to keep the city clean. There is little that local government can help them with, however, Dill said.

"It's more civic pride than what we can do as the city itself," he said.

Campbell is focusing instead on improving its old industrial sites. State and federal money is available to pay for that, Dill said.

Struthers: Across the Mahoning River in Struthers, Mayor Dan Mamula points to strides made since the city adopted a new property code about two years ago.

The city is staying on top of problems, he said. That means identifying eyesores, citing the owners and prosecuting in court. Chronic offenders are the hardest to deal with. Even court appearances and fines don't push some to clean up their properties.

"It becomes a real frustrating thing. It's like chasing our tail," Mamula said.

Mamula acknowledges the city could do more to rally the public to take more of an interest. He wants that to be a focus of the city's upcoming centennial celebration. He's receptive to ideas from the public and vows to do what he can to make things easier for volunteers.

"I need people willing to roll up their sleeves and participate, not just complain," he said.

Townships: Austintown often doesn't have the authority as cities do to address blight, said Administrator Michael Dockry.

Home rule status would let the township tailor laws to better fit local problems. For example, uncut grass cases could be handled more quickly.

Township voters, however, have turned down home rule many times and trustees haven't forced it. For now, Austintown is doing what it can, he said.

"Some of these problems make the case for home rule," Dockry said.

Other problems, such as the look of vacant businesses, are solved via economic development efforts to refill those buildings. That's largely out of the township's hands, Dockry said. The township is set up to provide safety and services so business can follow, he said.

Boardman trustees adopted home rule provisions two years ago, providing new power that has paid off, said Administrator Curt B. Seditz.

The police and zoning departments are investigating all kinds of complaints, from uncut grass to handmade signs tacked to utility poles. People are being cited and fined.

On properties that predate zoning laws, the township is seeking cooperation, such as asking businesses to keep trash bins maintained. On new construction, expanded green space requirements are having the desired affect, Seditz said.

There's not much more the township can do, he said.




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