August 22, 2011 [Canton Repository]
Stark County has more than 14,000 vacant homes, or nearly 1 in 12. That’s up nearly two-thirds since 2000, according to census data.
The number of foreclosure filings has more than doubled in the last decade, to about 2,500 a year.
And Canton city officials estimate that the number of abandoned or neglected properties that city workers mow has grown more than five-fold in the past five years — to 4,800.
The numbers describe deteriorating neighborhoods. It was fear of spreading blight that prompted former county Treasurer Alexander Zumbar and officials at the nonprofit Community Building Partnership of Stark County to embrace a relatively new concept in Ohio.
A county land bank.
A Stark County land bank, modeled after the one in Cuyahoga County, could take over tax-foreclosed properties whose owners could not be found. It also could receive nearly worthless foreclosed parcels from lenders at little or no cost. It could demolish or rehabilitate homes to revitalize crumbling neighborhoods and transfer properties to nonprofits and developers.
The Community Building Partnership started working last spring with Zumbar to establish a land bank.
By June, after getting positive feedback from county commissioners, Zumbar was preparing paperwork to set up a land bank. Then the Ohio Supreme Court made a ruling that derailed the project.
The court said commissioners acted improperly last year in removing Democrat Gary Zeigler as county treasurer after his chief deputy stole nearly $3 million from the county treasury. Zumbar, elected in a special election after Zeigler’s ouster, was no longer treasurer.
“It could have been up and running by now,” Zumbar said of a land bank. “Does this benefit the county at a time when we need every single tool in our arsenal to engage economic development?”
Now at least one county commissioner, Janet Weir Creighton, is “hesitant” to approve establishing a land bank.
“It’s really been put on the back burner,” said Creighton, who, like Zumbar, is a Republican. “I like the concept, but I have to have confidence in those involved.”
Even if Zeigler weren’t an issue, the land bank idea faces other obstacles. Commissioners are consumed with county financial problems and show little appetite for pushing the land bank. School districts, the biggest recipients of property taxes, may oppose it.
It’s also unclear if commissioners would approve a key funding source: diverting 5 percent of revenue from delinquent property tax payments, as is permitted by law, to a land bank. That money would be on top of the 5 percent that already goes to the county treasurer and prosecutor to pay for collecting back taxes. It’s money that now goes to school districts and local governments.