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Wheeling Councilman Ben Seidler: City’s Effort With Dilapidated Structures ‘Not Good Enough’

photo by: Eric Ayres

Wheeling Councilman Ben Seidler, chairman of council’s Public Safety Committee, speaks during a meeting Thursday to review progress being made on abandoned and dilapidated structures.

WHEELING — City leaders met Thursday afternoon during a meeting of the Public Safety Committee of Wheeling City Council to follow up on efforts to crack down on owners of abandoned and dilapidated structures. And one councilman doesn’t think the city is where it should be in that effort.

Councilman Ben Seidler, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, has remained vigilant in his quest to clean up some of Wheeling’s blighted and deteriorating neighborhoods. A resident of Wheeling Island, Seidler since taking office has championed large community cleanup efforts and has pushed for more efficient and effective ways for the city to target neglected properties.

At Thursday’s meeting, officials discussed the difficulties of cutting through red tape to assess fines against property owners committing code violations. The process can be difficult when officials cannot identify or reach owners of neglected and abandoned properties. City leaders want to be able to issue fines, assess liens and take action to acquire properties and address problems.

“But the clock does not tick until the judge’s gavel closes and states that that person has been found guilty of those violations,” City Solicitor Rose Humway-Warmuth said, noting that the city’s legal department has requested that the judge impose the maximum fine, but that remains at the court’s discretion.

“Why are we not charging them on a daily basis or a weekly basis?” Seidler asked. “I live in a neighborhood with hundreds of freaking properties over there right now that are sitting and rotting away. We have hundreds of properties in our city that are rotting away, and it’s not getting better. I’m trying to challenge people to figure out a solution.”

photo by: Eric Ayres

Code enforcement official Larry Helms, Building and Planning Director Tom Connelly, Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger and City Solicitor Rose Humway-Warmuth attend a meeting Thursday of the Wheeling City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

Seidler said his intention was to bring people together to try to figure out a solution to this lingering problem with dilapidated properties. City leaders want to see fines initiated at the time of the citation and attach it to the property, placing a lien on the property and eventually forcing a sale.

“At the end of the day, I’m just saying, whatever is happening now is not good enough,” Seidler said.

The city has been trying to crack down on run-down properties, and one way it has worked toward that has been a new non-emergency reporting system through the city’s partnership with GovPilot. The new app-based tool has taken the functions of the Wheeling 311 non-emergency reporting system and integrated them into a smartphone app known as GovAlert. The new system modernizes the city’s approach to handling these public requests for services from the code enforcement to issues related to the public works, parks and recreation, and other city departments.

Officials noted that more and more people are using the system and are submitting “tickets” or reports of issues and violations.

“We’re up to about 478 open tickets under building and planning,” Seidler said.

“And we’re getting more every day,” said Tom Connelly, director of Building and Planning, noting that reports of high grass and similar issues are increasing this time of year. Officials in the code enforcement office are kept busy responding to the reports. “They are addressing them as they can, and they’re adding to them themselves. When they’re out in the field following up on one, they’re adding three more. So, I don’t know that you’ll ever get in front of it with 25,000 parcels in the city. But if you can have an organized approach for it, that’s where we are.”

Connelly said the morale in the department is high because the system is much more organized and efficient than ever before. However, with more people using the new system, a higher volume of complaints are received, and there are only a handful of city staff members in the code enforcement department available to tackle them at any given time.

“We’re processing them,” Connelly said. “Some take longer than others to get rid of. They’re going through the steps they need to be going through in the most efficient manner that they can.”

Some neighborhoods receive many more calls than others, Connelly noted, and that can be attributed to the nature of the residential density, the property ownership records and the economic conditions of neighborhoods.

In addition to Connelly, Thursday’s meeting was also attended by Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger, City Manager Robert Herron, Humway-Warmuth, City Clerk Brenda J. Delbert, Development Director Nancy Prager, code enforcement officer Larry Helms and Councilman Dave Palmer, vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee. Fellow committee member Rosemary Ketchum was not in attendance.

City leaders also discussed the city’s current demolition list, which as of Thursday stood at 117 properties.

Both the Public Safety Committee and the Finance Committee of Wheeling City Council recently threw support behind a proposal to increase the city’s annual demolition budget to $1 million. The unprecedented effort doubles the demolition budget from last year’s total of $500,000, which itself was considered a considerable investment.

Helms said the estimated demolition cost for these properties is based on tax history, but one major factor that may influence the price tag relates to fuel costs and operational other increases that may be imposed by contractors in this struggling economy.

“With 100 structures, we were right around $1 million,” Connelly said. “Some properties on the list, though, we have scored, but they’re not going to be city demolitions. That’s just our master demolition list, and some of those are private demolitions. But they’re on our radar, because if for any reason the owner falls through, we know we’ve got to step in.”

Also discussed Thursday were related issues such as the possibility of creating a Land Reuse Agency in the city, addressing needs with police staffing levels, bringing back the city’s old Red X program and initiating a plan to live stream municipal court proceedings.

No other municipality in the state is live streaming municipal court, but other cities across the country are, Seidler noted.

“West Virginia gets a bad rap about being the last in so many things,” Seidler said. “I have absolutely no problem pushing the envelope to be the first in this state.”

The thought about bringing back the city’s Red X program has been met with lukewarm support, as concerns about the effectiveness of “shaming” property owners have raised somewhat of a red flag.

“My desire to do something with these are less about shame, but more about letting residents in the neighborhood and other citizens know that we’re actually working on it,” Seidler said. “A frequent question I hear is, ‘why aren’t you guys doing anything about this?’ In a neighborhood with 100 of these properties, I get that question all day long, literally.”

The Public Safety Committee is expected to meet again in June to follow up on a number of the ongoing issues related to dilapidated structures and the efficiency and effectiveness of the measures being put forth to address them.

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