PORTSMOUTH — A wide range of issues facing the city could be dealt with in-concert depending on how Portsmouth City Council votes in future sessions on a tax proposal mentioned by 5th Ward Councilman Edwin Martell.
During Monday night’s City Managers session, Martell reintroduced the tax proposal for vacant buildings and storefronts. Money raised through the tax could go toward funding code enforcement and attracting businesses to the area, issues that are of high importance and needing funds.
Multiple cities across the country have enacted these fees with varying caveats, the one Martell supported being a flat fee as enacted in Oakland, California.
“We really need to do something about the blighted and vacant buildings,” he said, describing the tax not as a penalty but as an encouragement. “This is just a way for us to actually do and accomplish all of those things.”
2nd Ward Councilwoman Charlotte Gordon was in agreement with Martell, calling for the dots to be connected between a pressing need for affordable homes and the high amounts of empty residences.
“This may be the fire that lights it,” she said describing the proposal’s possibility.
City Solicitor John Haas added that the prevalence of vacant homes, 2015-2019 U.S. Census figures showing a owner-occupied housing unit rate of 46.7% in the city, is partially due to past inaction by the city.
“The list of properties that need to be torn down that have been condemned is as long as both of my arms,” he said, where the city has been more flexible in giving opportunities to fix these dilapidated buildings over the years. “There really is no teeth in telling somebody you’re going to get your house torn down.”
The solicitor feels a reversal of this attitude, where the city starts tearing down more of these buildings, could alleviate part of the issue and encourage more proactivity by residents.
“I think if you start tearing down houses that others might get the idea that if I don’t keep mine up, mine is going to go down,” he said.
Martell, later in the session, agreed with Haas and asked if the proposal would be required to end up on the ballots in November. It is not known whether the city will be exempt from the tax as the topic remains a discussion item.
“If we continue to sit and allow people to sit and wait, all that does is continue to hurt the city,” he said, the ballot question depending on how the proposal is structured. “It continues to bring property value down, it continues to keep businesses from popping up.”
Lack of funding has limited code enforcement especially, where out-of-state violators have been able to evade punishment. The matter has been of particular attention recently, the office adding former Portsmouth City Health Department environmental director Andy Gedeon earlier this month.
In earlier discussion in the March 8 meeting, 1st Ward Councilman Sean Dunne said the time has to come to hold out-of-state owners accountable for violations. As revealed during the session, City Manager Sam Sutherland said Gedeon had reported that six of the nine homes he inspected for violations March 8 were owned by out-of-state residents.
“We have an issue where people with repeated infractions can continue to buy up property,” he said, where he’s not sure what punishments if any can be applied to prevent repeat offenders from purchasing the property.
Education, just as drunk drivers are required to take courses, Dunne also feels could change or lessen the frequency in which these violations occur.
Why these violating owners have been of a particular challenge says City Solicitor John Haas comes down to how deep the city’s pockets are. Servicing expenses also depend on how far away the owner is, saying the work is much more feasible when in West Virginia when compared to California.
“The City has not proceeded on those cases because it’s expensive,” said Haas, adding that a lack of manpower also contributes to its ability. “To get service on someone from out-of-state has been the big issue.”
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.
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