Counties race to spend demolition cash (Columbus Dispatch)

Cuyahoga Land Bank News

Counties race to spend demolition cash (Columbus Dispatch)

With six months left in the state’s program to tear down blighted properties in local communities, almost 80 percent of the $75 million available remains unspent.

Counties across the state are racing the end-of-year deadline to spend the money, with some of the largest counties saying they won’t cross the finish line on time. Counties with established demolition programs have been more successful than those that have had to build their programs from scratch.

Franklin County has spent less than 20 percent of the $15.9 million it was allocated through Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Moving Ohio Forward Demolition Program, but officials say efforts should step up now that a system is in place. Treasurer Ed Leonard said the county has worked hard to find a niche it can fill and not duplicate the efforts of its nonprofit partners and the city of Columbus.

That’s what land-bank officials plan to tell DeWine’s office during an upcoming review. Leonard said the county’s land bank will not be able to spend all the money it has been awarded before the end of the year but should have more than 400 homes under contract to be demolished. He said that will prove to the attorney general that the county can move quickly now that the land bank is up and running.

By contrast, the Cuyahoga County land bank, the first of its kind in the state, has been tearing down blighted homes in and around Cleveland since 2009. Cuyahoga County received $11.8 million from DeWine’s program. Combined with local matching money, it has more than $23 million to demolish vacant properties by the end of 2013.

The county has spent about $11.7 million. William Whitney, the land bank’s chief operating officer, said it has $3 million more in signed demolition contracts that will take three to four months to complete. Despite that, he said, the land bank and partner Cleveland will not use all of the money before the year ends.

“Spending $23 million in a year to a year and a half is nearly impossible,” Whitney said.

Counties that have not spent at least 50 percent of their grant dollars by Monday must account for how they plan to use the money by the end of the year. DeWine’s office is beginning a midyear review of the program, and some counties are concerned that unspent money will have to be returned to be reallocated next year.

DeWine will say only that he is happy with the program so far. Statewide, more than $26 million — about $16 million from the state and $10 million in local matching money — has been spent to destroy about 3,400 residential units in 50 counties.

His silence on the topic of program renewal is having the desired effect, though, pushing counties to move as fast as possible.

“I’ve seen firsthand how happy the neighbors are to see these houses come down,” DeWine said. “I’m impatient to get more people to experience this.”

DeWine said he expects the number of demolitions and reimbursement requests to skyrocket this summer, now that more counties have the pieces in place to act on the grants.

In central Ohio, Newark is ahead of most of its neighbors. It leads the Licking County demolition program, which knocked down its first blighted home on Aug. 2 last year, the day after the state program started.

Barbara Gilkes, a grant writer for the city’s Department of Development, said that’s because the city already had a demolition program in place and a list of blighted properties.

“You needed to be prepared before the

Aug. 1 date to be ready to tear down these houses,” she said. “That’s why we had an edge.”

Gilkes said that if other counties can’t spend their money in time, DeWine should reallocate those dollars to places that can, such as Newark.

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