By Tom Davidson
Herald Staff Writer
It would cost more than $1 million to demolish about 250 houses in Farrell that need it, City Manager Michael Ceci said.
There are also a handful of vacant commercial buildings that are eyesores that should be torn down.
It’s a problem Ceci has made a priority in the 18 months he’s been city manager. Prior to his arrival the city’s code office had done its best to clean up the city, Code Officer Mark Yerskey said.
But the city hasn’t been able to earmark enough cash to make a noticeable dint in the blight that’s afflicting the city like a cancerous tumor.
“Blight in our town is a cancer that continues to grow,” Ceci told those who attended a council meeting Monday.
People came to the meeting to ask the city to make good on long-unfulfilled promises to tear down specific vacant houses.
The problem is a lack of cash to take down a significant number of houses each year as that list keeps growing as occupied homes become vacant, then are stripped of anything of value and left to decay.
“I’ve searched for every dollar I can find,” Ceci said.
But state and federal grant money is nearly nonexistent.
The city uses some of its annual Community Development Block Grant for some demolition, but it only covers enough to take down less than 20 or so each year, Ceci said.
In 2014, $76,000 of the about-$300,000 in CDBG cash will go to demolition, Ceci said. The city used previous years’ CDBG cash, plus some economic development money, to take down 34 houses this year.
But that still leaves many problem properties standing, including two in the 600 block of Fruit Avenue that Keith Austin Sr. and his namesake son complained to council about Monday.
Those properties are on the demo list, but haven’t made the cut to actually be slated for removal.
“They have a legitimate gripe,” Yerskey said. “We just don’t have the funding.”
But that’s not entirely the case.
The city does have almost $1 million, more if required repayments are factored into its revolving loan fund.
That money could be used for demolition, or other reasons for that matter, than what it is presently used for, Ceci said.
The cash was originally federal Urban Development Action Grant proceeds.
The now-defunct program, called “UDAG” by those who speak decades-old bureaucratese, was once a part of the city’s lifeblood.
City officials have kept a tight rein on those dollars because “it’s been a prudent thing to keep,” Ceci said.
But it could be earmarked for demolitions in the name of future development, he said.
“It’s still the city’s dollars,” he said.
Council would have to act to spend the money this way, and it’s something he wouldn’t advise rushing approval on, Ceci said.
“But at some point you have to say, ‘OK, can we use this for something greater?’ ” Ceci said.
The rub is that once the money is spent in this fashion, it’s gone.
Before he’d advise such an option, Ceci said a “definitive plan” on how to spend it would have to be drafted and council members would have to each be fully aware of “the ramifications” of spending the money.