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West Virginia Auditor J.B. McCuskey Wants To Set Aside $30 Million To Demolish Dilapidated Buildings

Photo by Joselyn King - Wheeling Vice Mayor Chad Thalman, left, and Mayor Glenn Elliott discuss the issue of dilapidated properties Thursday with West Virginia Auditor J.B. McCuskey.

WHEELING — West Virginia needs to tackle the issue of dilapidated properties in blocks, and take down large numbers of unlivable homes all at one time, suggests West Virginia Auditor J.B. McCuskey.

“It’s at the point where it is impossible for cities to keep up,” he said during a stop in Wheeling on Thursday. “If they can’t fix the problem all at once, it doesn’t get done.”

McCuskey met with Wheeling officials to discuss his “Community Resurrection and Economic Development Act,” which was expected to be introduced at the West Virginia Legislature Thursday at the request of Gov. Jim Justice.

McCuskey, as auditor, serves as land commissioner for the state.

The measure would set aside $30 million dollars to help cities and counties demolish buildings that cannot be saved.

The first goal of the bill addresses properties that can be saved and incentivizes ownership and repurposing of abandoned lands, according to information provided by McCuskey’s office. The bill offers a hardship plan to property owners to allow for repayment arrangements or tax forgiveness when one or more conditions are met.

If taxes become delinquent and the property ends up with the State Auditor’s Office, it would first be offered to owners of neighboring parcels of land, then the city or county in which it sits, then nonprofit corporations and charitable groups, McCuskey explained.

The second piece of the legislation deals with helping communities tear down dilapidated structures. As cities and counties have been spending millions from their general revenue budget to do this piecemeal, McCuskey believes awarding larger, regional contracts to tear down several buildings at once will provide a major cost savings to the state, cities, and counties.

Most every West Virginia city has at least 50 properties that need to be torn down, he said.

Wheeling Building and Planning Department Director Tom Connelly reported there were about 75 properties “in the system” slated for demolition in the city. If money were not an option 40 to 45 of these could come down “within a couple of months,” he said.

If McCuskey’s legislation passes, it would give Wheeling “another tool in the tool box” to deal with dilapidated housing and move the city forward, explained Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott.

“You only have one chance to make a good impression,” he said. “If it’s a person’s first time visiting the city, it’s not a great way to say, ‘Hey, welcome to Wheeling.’

“We have to do a great job of cleaning up our entryways in and out of the city.”

The legislation creates a pool of funds for cities to raze dilapidated properties as a group, and this lowers the per property cost per demolition, Elliott said.

Typically, the cost for demolishing one house ranges from $10,000 to $15,000, he said. The city usually budgets about $100,000 for demolishing buildings, but some years, more money was dedicated to the purpose, according to Elliott.

“If you can order a whole block of demolition through a common bidding system, you may get the cost down to $2,000 to $3,000 per home,” he said. “So the number of homes we can take down with the same amount of money is going to be greater.”

A goal of the bill is to replace dilapidated housing with homes that are both livable and affordable to those who need them, McCuskey explained.

West Virginia is short in its number of doctors, nurses, teachers, law enforcement officers and other professions in the state, McCuskey explained.

His thought is if West Virginia cleans up some neighborhoods and provides better and more affordable housing opportunities to the working class, this may entice those outside the state to relocate to West Virginia and assume these jobs.

“Our hope is that we can start to promote people moving to these places where we need them by offering them a livable home at a very affordable cost, and then a small rehabilitation loan,” he explained.

His conversations with drug rehabilitation center workers also suggested to him those recovering from addiction would benefit from having more affordable housing in their communities, he continued.

“The biggest issue is they come right out of rehab, and they go back to where they were — the same neighborhood with the same people and the same problems, ” McCuskey said. “They have no credits, no assets and no money. Housing — if anything — can be a source of pride and responsibility and hopefulness. If we can use any of these houses to help fix those problems, it would be incumbent upon us to kill as many birds with one stone as we can,” he said.

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