WILKES-BARRE — The mayors of three of Luzerne County’s four cities met Tuesday to discuss issues and possible partnerships to help ease some of the financial burdens each faces and ways to grow their communities.
Mayor Tony George of Wilkes-Barre, Mayor Mike Lombardo of Pittston and Mayor Jeff Cusat of Hazleton met for more than an hour in Wilkes-Barre City Hall to exchange ideas and to share experiences. Mayor Rich Wiaterowski of Nanticoke could not attend the meeting.
Lombardo said the group, for now, is called Council of Cities and the plan is to meet quarterly or more often, depending on issues.
Tuesday’s discussion centered on blighted properties and how to deal with absentee owners and overcrowded units with numerous code violations. The mayors’ goal is to find the best way to get the buildings rehabilitated and returned to the tax rolls as soon as possible.
There was extended conversation on Act 90 — the “Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act” — which took effect in 2011.
Act 90 expands the powers that municipalities have to reduce blighted properties. Those in “serious code violation,” as determined by local zoning officers, can have several legal actions taken against them. Buildings that are determined to be a “public nuisance” also fall under the law.
A city may take action if after six months from the date of an order to correct violations there has been “no substantial step” to correct those violations.
Some of the options available:
• Liens can be placed against properties with code violations.
• Municipalities can take property owners to court to seek judgments against an owner’s assets.
• Municipalities may deny permits to owners of buildings who are in violation.
• Municipalities may deny permits to owners who are behind in taxes.
• Municipalities may deny permits to owners behind in other municipal accounts (water, sewage, refuse collection, etc.)
• Municipalities may deny these permits until all existing violations are remedied.
• Out-of-state property owners may be extradited to Pennsylvania to be charged with property-related violations.
• Magisterial districts may establish “housing courts” — additionally, judges are encouraged to attend training and education relating to new blight laws.
George, Cusat and Lombardo will invite Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis to discuss what her office can do to assist the cities in addressing the issues covered by Act 90.
“In Pittston, our focus over the next four years will be on our housing stock,” said Lombardo, who returned to office this month. “All of our downtowns are growing or have the potential to grow and housing issues dictate where we go from here.”
Lombardo hopes the mayors can share issues each city is confronting and also discuss how they can join together to make purchases of items and materials they all use.
“In Hazleton, we certainly have a lot of issues with housing,” Cusat said. “We found one apartment where eight people were living in one room. We’ve also found people living in basements with no way out.”
George agreed the four cities together have the potential to present a stronger argument on issues.
“As a group, we have a better chance at securing federal funding for certain projects,” George said.
Lombardo and Cusat agreed, saying each city acting alone would not be as influential as a united effort by the four.
The mayors also intend to find ways to attract developers to their cities to help eliminate blight.