Unnecessary Messin’ With Monessen

Older industrial communities throughout our county and Commonwealth, in particular in the Mon Valley, are struggling to revitalize and reinvent themselves. Part of the job of county commissioner is to try to help these towns succeed. There is absolutely no reason why my colleagues should continue to be an obstacle to the city of Monessen’s revitalization efforts.

Earlier this year, the city approached the county about being a partner in an ambitious redevelopment effort called “Monessen Rising”. It’s a multi-faceted approach that includes development and demolition, residential and business, and a special emphasis on the arts. It is hopefully the start of something new and exciting for a city that – like a lot smaller cities in southwest PA – has seen its population decline and its businesses struggle. While Monessen’s challenges are not unique, its proposed solution is.

In order to facilitate its redevelopment efforts the city approached us about transferring ownership of 271 properties in the county’s repository of unsold properties. These are properties that are held by the county due to unpaid taxes and have been passed over many times during various tax sales. They have little value to homebuyers or developers. Many have vacant, dilapidated structures on them. They are not currently on the tax rolls, meaning the county – or any other taxing body – earns no tax revenue from them. More often than not, properties like these are purchased by out-of-towners who look for a quick “flip” and have no vested interest in the community. They are, in short, the worst of the worst.

And to put all this in perspective, more than half of the properties described above are in Monessen.

So the city has offered to pay the county $1 for each of these parcels. It’s a good deal all the way around.

Most importantly, the agreement would get these properties under control of the community, who through its elected leaders can forge a strategy to deal with them – either one-by-one or collectively. It opens the potential to cluster properties for development, target areas for demolition, revitalize neighborhoods for housing, and set up a real long-term plan to engage the private sector in these efforts.

It has been reported that the county somehow has absorbed thousands of dollars in administrative costs for these properties. That is misleading. This calculation is based in very large part on expenses, like staff, that the county would pay anyway. But the cost of doing nothing is much greater – these properties will sit idle, no one will collect any taxes, and they will remain blight on the community. Getting them to the city is the best (and right now, only) plan to make them productive again and get them back on the tax rolls, which will have much greater long-term financial benefits for the county than trying to recoup some made-up administrative costs.

Further, the county should do this as a simple matter of good government. We should encourage this type of pro-active cooperation with our municipal governments. We should not try to micromanage a community’s ambitions or play nanny state to a city’s redevelopment.

Plus, we’ve seen far too often what happens when a city does nothing to change its fate. For its efforts to save itself, Monessen deserves not just our praise, but also our assistance.

I’ve been warned by one of my skeptical colleagues that the county’s action would set a dangerous precedent. Indeed, it would set a precedent, but there is nothing dangerous about it all. It would send a strong message to other communities in the county that we will proudly partner with them in their efforts. Put together a plan, and we will help you. It is municipal cooperation at its finest and something we should be striving for – not running away from.

While it’s immensely disappointing for the Mon Valley that my fellow commissioners are blocking Monessen’s plans, I remain confident that they will eventually come around. There is too much of a potential reward, and absolutely no risk, in doing so.