Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul "I can't file state charges" Gains is at it again -- but this time his reluctance to act proactively has nothing to do with crooked politicians and others who have been caught in the federal government's crackdown on public corruption.
We've tried without success to persuade the county prosecutor to file state charges against some of the more notable criminals, especially those who have received a slap on the wrist from the federal criminal justice system, but his latest balk has us wondering what Gains does all day.
Last week, just as county Treasurer John Reardon and Youngstown Mayor George M. McKelvey talked about a new program to deal with the persistent problem of property burdened with long-standing tax delinquencies, Gains let it be known that they were venturing onto legal quicksand.
" ... we have a constitutional obligation to follow the law," he told a meeting of county and city officials. The prosecutor noted that the "in rem" -- "against the property" -- foreclosure process being touted by Reardon and McKelvey had been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Gains contended that failing to notify property owners of the foreclosure of their properties is a violation of the due process clause.
Is Gains being duly cautious or overly timid? We ask that because the "in rem" foreclosure process is being used in Trumbull County, which completes 850 such foreclosures annually. By comparison, there were 482 foreclosures in Mahoning County over the past three years. Sixty were handled by the county treasurer, while most of the others were dealt with through the Youngstown City Land Bank program.
But in the words of Mayor McKelvey, the bank has "failed miserably." It has been in existence since 1995, but only 757 properties have been handled through that program. It takes 18 months to three years to complete and another 330 properties await foreclosure.
Thousands of parcels
Currently, the county's real estate delinquency tab is a whopping $47 million on 23,000 parcels, of which 17,000 parcels are in Youngstown and account for $38.5 million. That's why the mayor and city council have been pushing for years for an aggressive program to get these properties away from the tax scofflaws.
Past efforts have been time consuming and costly. It makes no sense for the county to spend $800 to $1,000 to foreclosure on a parcel worth $300.
That is why Reardon's proposal seemed like a good idea. In the city, most of the parcels are vacant lots that have been untended for years. Yet, to hear Gains tell it, the landlord has a constitutional right to be notified of any foreclosure proceeding.
We certainly aren't suggesting that the county prosecutor do something blatantly illegal, but when 11 counties in the state of Ohio have "in rem" programs, we have to wonder what their county prosecutors know that Gains doesn't. Perhaps they are more willing to risk one or two lawsuits in order to get hundreds of parcels off the delinquent tax rolls.
But if Gains just cannot bring himself to display legal courage, we have to ask whether he has a better idea. After all, the issue of delinquent real estate taxes has been around for as long as he has been office and, in fact, was on the front burner when McKelvey was county treasurer 13 years ago.
Mr. Gains, it's time for you to take the initiative. Just saying no isn't enough.