By Samantha Phillips
City officials are fighting to recoup money from commercial property owners who haven’t paid their property taxes, and Mayor James Melfi is ready to play hardball with delinquents.
City council in April requested data from Trumbull County Treasurer Sam Lamancusa on delinquent taxes for all commercial ventures in Girard. Lamancusa sent the figures in May.
The city’s treasurer doesn’t have the power to collect back taxes; the county treasurer collects them. But, as Councilwoman Fran Wilson said, the city wants to know from the county treasurer what can be done to move forward with collections.
“We know there are taxes out there that aren’t being paid, and the owners of these buildings, they keep them year after year, but they aren’t paying taxes on them. That’s where we are getting upset,” Wilson said.
Based on the county data, the city’s zoning committee, made up of council members Wilson, Lily Martuccio and Mark Ragozine, determined about $305,000 in taxes will be owed in August, both current and delinquent, from commercial properties in the city.
When commercial property owners don’t pay their taxes, the city, the school district, Trumbull County Children Services and other entities that depend on tax money suffer, Wilson told city council in May.
“You need to be interested in the citizens of Girard and the impact of you not paying these taxes and how it affects the citizens,” Wilson said.
For delinquent taxes only, property owners owe a total of $245,968, according to Lamancusa’s data from May. It breaks down to $20,734 for properties already in foreclosure, $49,089 for pending foreclosure properties, $122,437 for delinquent commercial properties, $28,162 for delinquent commercial land only, $9,109 for residential space on commercial properties and $16,437 on approved contract properties.
Some delinquent taxes are recent and some date back several decades.
Commercial property owners pay a first-half tax bill due by March and a second-half tax bill due by August.
Lamancusa explained some businesses make more money in the summer than they do in the winter, so property owners might not make the March deadline, but will pay the full amount by the August deadline.
Lamancusa said what’s happening in Girard happens throughout the Mahoning Valley. Every city and township has commercial property owners who owe taxes and others who face foreclosure.
Melfi said the city would like to ask for an update from the treasurer since May, though Lamancusa said nothing will be updated until after second-half taxes are closed in August.
“If they owe a great deal of money, what is the next step for the county treasurer as far as foreclosing these properties?” Melfi said.
Lamancusa explained that, after someone fails to pay their taxes in full by August, the owner gets a bill due by September, and if that bill isn’t paid, the county treasurer’s office will send a 15-day notice that warns failure to respond to the county could start the foreclosure process.
Melfi acknowledged some of the vacant buildings can’t be salvaged, and “a vacant eyesore is better knocked down than just looking at it and not developing it. So that’s the direction we should go, and I think council is ready to do that.”
With foreclosure, Melfi said, the city can control its own destiny, as it did with the Ohio Leather Works property the city acquired.
“If we control the property, we control the course this city goes,” he said. “We’re going to have to get aggressive and clean up these downtown properties to draw others downtown.”
Melfi said local and national business trends have changed downtown Girard and caused some businesses to consolidate or move, which left behind some vacant buildings
“Unfortunately for us, some of them are held by one family who does a very poor job of maintaining their property,” he said.
The mayor said he is concerned with John and Dan Penza who together owe the largest amount, about $61,171 in delinquent taxes to the city according to the county treasurer’s office data. They co-own many properties and also own some independently. Combined, they own 29 delinquent properties in Girard including land parcels. Thirteen of those are more than a year late.
Wilson has gotten the most complaints about the old HHH insurance building downtown on South State Street, owned by John Penza, she said.
The building is vacant, but there’s debris and old construction supplies on the inside, and the windows used to be covered in graffiti, Wilson said.
“Commercial property owners need to start looking at what [they] can do to make the city look better,” Wilson said.
A neighboring salon owner has “a beautiful building they remodeled and brought up to standards. Then across the street you have an old building that needs repaired,” Wilson said. She worries about the impression left on the patrons who come from out of town.
In addition to not paying taxes, city officials say the Penzas’ buildings, including the insurance building, are in bad shape, some of them vacant.
Melfi said officials approached downtown business owners when the city obtained the Community Housing Improvement Program grant last year to renovate businesses, but the Penzas didn’t apply.
Dan Penza said he was interested in CHIP funds. But for years, he said they sent in the appropriate paperwork when they thought the city would get the CHIP grant, but didn’t. So they didn’t send it last year. John Penza could not be reached for comment after several attempts to contact him.
“The city is awful discouraged to say the least. You have property owners who don’t maintain their buildings, aren’t marketing their downtown buildings and don’t take free money,” Melfi said. “Now, we are at the issue where they aren’t even paying their property tax, so now we, as a city, have to become very aggressive with our approach, at least with delinquent owners, so that’s where we are today.”
Wilson wants owners to improve their buildings’ aesthetics and bring them up to code to encourage more businesses to come downtown. She said the entrances into Girard have nice buildings, but some businesses in the middle need to renovate.
“We need to try and do something with the old commercial buildings, especially downtown,” she said. “I want to bring economic development, bring more businesses into town to get more people employed and get our town to the pretty town it used to be. That’s my passion.”