Henry Radulski, director of the city’s Department of Health, stands to answer the concerns of a resident at Monday’s Crime Watch meeting at Central United Methodist Church in South Wilkes-Barre. - Fred Adams | For Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — Residents didn’t want the microphone at a South Wilkes-Barre Crime Watch meeting Monday night. They wanted results with the vacant and nuisance properties that riddle their neighborhoods.
“A city doesn’t survive, if the neighborhoods don’t survive,” said Roger Garrett, 75, of Race Street. “I have three or four homes with no one in them and you (the city) says there’s nothing they can do about it.”
Garrett’s gripe was addressed by Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George.
“Along with our health and police department, the city has been giving citations to these houses,” George said. “We are working with the magistrate’s office so we can allow our officers to serve those warrants.”
Garrett replied: “It’s a shame people are trying to sell their homes to leave Wilkes-Barre. That’s no way to run a city.”
Mayor George used Garrett’s example of why City Hall is trying to step up enforcement.
Mary Pat Brunner also isn’t happy with what she’s seen recently.
“All the resources are going to colleges and businesses, the city looks beautiful,” said Brunner, 75. “But when you take a ride a few minutes down the road, you need to clean up the streets and help us out.”
Brunner, who also is a landlord in South Wilkes-Barre, was the most outspoken resident among the crowd of over 30 who attended Monday’s session at Central United Methodist Church.
“I’ve been here for 48 years and it’s been going on for 48 years. There are vacant and nuisance properties on Maffett Street,” Brunner said. “The cops are down there at least two or three times a day.”
She continued: “I have neighbors that are very nasty. We’ve witnessed them throwing feces and urinating out the windows. I’ve had to put a fence around my property and install cameras.”
Wilkes-Barre City Police Commander Joe Coffay, who’s running the department in the absence of a new chief, knew about the properties Brunner was referring to.
“Those properties have been a problem my entire career,” Coffay said. “Seven arrests have been made in the 22 trips city police have had to make to Maffett Street since January.”
Brunner added: “My tenants are great. They shouldn’t have to be in fear that our neighbors might retaliate for calling the police. I walk down the middle of the street in fear.”
Patrolman Kirk Merchel also addressed Brunner’s concerns.
“We are doing the best we can within our scope but if you see something, please don’t hesitate to call us.”
‘Expect increased patrols’
Like Brunner, many other residents said they’ve experienced problems with vacant or nuisance properties on their streets, including the Rev. Craig Gommer.
“My biggest concern is Miner Park,” Gommer said. “I smell the marijuana and know the drug activity that goes on after dark. I’ve frequently called the police.”
Gommer mentioned he observed children on the other side of his fence throwing fireworks at each other.
“I just hope to see more patrols for the Fourth of July,” Gommer added.
Coffay said no officer is allowed to take off on the Fourth because of the anticipated number of problems.
“Expect there to be increased patrols,” Coffay said.
Residents also expressed concern about the amount of time the city has to spend on securing vacant homes so people cannot squat in them or use them for nefarious activities.
Although a property may be vacant or dormant for an extended period, the city still has to investigate who holds the deed before taking action. And tracking down the actual owners could sometimes be the hardest part.
“You can’t just go in and take people’s property away, they have rights,” said Butch Frati, city director of operations. “But that still doesn’t justify what they are doing.”
During the open forum, a woman claimed Mayor George’s ex-wife has been throwing her dog’s feces into the backyard of a vacant property on her block.
The mayor drew chuckles from the crowd when he responded that he hadn’t spoke to her in 20 years.
When the meeting concluded, the mayor emphasized the importance of getting to work on the problem houses.
“We’ve been working with the state and the county to work on these vacant properties,” George said. “I think under my time we’ve knocked down about 16 or 17 properties. I also think that’s more than what has been done in the past 10 years.”
“Unfortunately, these issues didn’t happen overnight and they are not going to just clear up overnight either,” the mayor added.
Henry Radulski, director of the city’s Department of Health, stands to answer the concerns of a resident at Monday’s Crime Watch meeting at Central United Methodist Church in South Wilkes-Barre.