Addition by Subtraction (Columbus Dispatch)

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Addition by Subtraction (Columbus Dispatch)

Getting up to speed took time, but county ready to take on blight

Imagine living across from a house that the owner long ago gave up on. The roof is peeling and windows are boarded up. For kids, it’s a hazardous hangout. Or maybe vagrants moved in, setting fires to keep warm.

Neighbors of 400 properties inside Franklin County need no imagination. They live by some of the worst dilapidated properties in central Ohio, which thanks to a speeded-up demolition process finally might have a date with a wrecking ball.

Last Tuesday, lawyers began filing the first expedited tax-foreclosure cases for Franklin County’s new land bank. A change in state law allowed the county land bank to avert sheriffs’ auctions by snapping up a property as soon as a court foreclosure is finalized. Owners still have 45 days to pay up; if they don’t, being able to bypass the sheriff’s sale shaves months off of acquiring and demolishing properties and gets them back into tax-producing, useful status that much sooner.

The expedited filings are expected to continue for weeks, feeding the pipeline for the land bank to start tearing down property after property.

Getting to this point was frustrating. It took Franklin County months to set up its land bank and figure out how all the players, including Columbus’ land bank and nonprofit groups, would work together without duplicating efforts.

Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. An $8.2 million blight-demolition grant from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office, from mortgage-fraud settlement funds, expires at year’s end. To have any hope of getting an extension, the county needed to show DeWine’s office that it finally is positioned to get these demolitions done.

Franklin County faced a sharp learning curve, but under Treasurer Ed Leonard, it appears to have established a land bank with a solid foundation that will govern operations for years to come.

“We didn’t want to rush into demolitions — whatever we could get our hands on,” Leonard said. “We may have ended up with properties we couldn’t redevelop. We’re getting a process into place to make the most of our resources by being strategic.”

Picking off those properties easiest to gain title to and demolish would have made Franklin County’s demolition numbers look better: By May, nearly halfway through the year, it had applied for just $1.65 million, or 21 percent of its grant; by comparison, Cuyahoga County’s more-established land bank had spent nearly half of its $11.8 million state grant. By focusing on effectiveness rather than appearances, the Franklin County land bank better serves the public in the long run.

Franklin County’s land bank, however, now must work to aggressively catch up so as to not lose the state dollars. Demolitions are costly for local governments to bear alone, and it’s an expense that is salt on the wound for law-abiding local taxpayers. In total, the 400 properties slated for demolition are $3.2 million in arrears. This is money that should be going to educate children, help senior citizens, run libraries and protect abused children.

It was essential that the county land bank take the time to set up a solid process. Its work involves respecting property rights, protecting neighboring property values and spending huge sums for demolitions — on average, upward of $10,000 per property in Franklin County.

It was better to do this correctly rather than quickly.

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