Neglect a Problem

Editor, News-Register:

Repair or raze?

Several people have reached out to me about the number of vacant buildings in our fair city. Why are they being ignored, who owns them, how long have they been empty, and who is responsible for getting the owners to fix them up or tear them down?

In order to find answers to those questions, and learn more about how bad the situation really is, I emailed a request to the director of the Wheeling Economic and Community Development Department seeking answers. Turns out what I thought was a simple request for specific information, was really viewed (by some) as a request for information that warranted the involvement of Rosemary Humway-Warmuth (City Solicitor). The city solicitor sent me an email that said, “City of Wheeling Departments answer Freedom of Information Requests in proper form.” She went on to say “the legal department is aware that the City Manager, Mayor & Department heads have gone over and beyond to accommodate your requests.”

I wonder why she felt it was necessary to make that statement? Nevertheless, the city solicitor treated my request for information as a FOIA request when in fact it was merely a citizen reaching out to a department head seeking what should be available information concerning the operation, or lack thereof, of code enforcement activities throughout the city.

Here’s what I learned from the city solicitor’s response:

Question No. 1 of my request sought “a current list identifying all properties (residential, commercial, and industrial) that have been issued a Repair or Raze order…” City’s response: “There are no documents responsive to the request.” Having worked for the city of Wheeling Building Inspection Department years ago, I believe that answer warrants at least eight Pinocchios.

My question No. 5 sought “a list of all vacant properties, and their ownership, that have failed to comply with any provision of the “vacant property” ordinance, including non-payment.”

City’s response: “There are no documents responsive to the request.” I’ll let you assign the number of Pinocchios that answer deserves.

The city failed to provide an answer to my question No. 3 ­– please identify the amount of money set aside, and/or expended in the current budget year for the demolition of properties in No. 2 above (which asked for a current list identifying all properties that have been certified for demolition…). NO ANSWER OR RESPONSE TO QUESTION No. 3. Was the lack of a response inadvertent or something else? You can come to your own conclusions. I did receive a copy of a communication (more like a memo), dated May 14, 2018, from the Economic and Community Development Department and sent to the City Engineer’s Department titled, “City Demolition Contract.” It stated, “Below is a list of properties that we would like to have put to bid for asbestos inspection/removal and demolition.” The list contained 13 buildings, with a line through one indicating the building inspector requested it be removed from the list. Further investigation revealed that no money was set aside from the 2018/2019 Community Developmen Block Grant funds for any demolition activities, and I’ve not found any information suggesting that any buildings were demolished. However, I did see that the second largest expenditure of those funds, in the amount of $232,588, was set aside for administration. When questioned about the amount set aside for “administration,” the head of the Economic and Community Development Department said, “That line item pays for salaries, benefits, office supplies, consultants, training expenses, monitoring expenses and many more other administrative needs as they arise.” The largest expenditure was for a new fire truck, $425,000. Seems like an established department of the city shouldn’t be taking such a large slice of the CDBG funds to supplement their budget. I thought that CDBG funds were to be used to benefit the moderate- and low-income populations of our city.

Unfortunately there is a lot more to write about concerning neglected, selective, or absent code enforcement concerning vacant properties, and limited space to do it in. Your input, and support, is always appreciated. As a Post Script — the ECDD department head has offered to sit down with me at a scheduled meeting this coming Thursday, May 30.

Hope springs eternal!

J. Jacobs

Wheeling

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