The issue: Vacant buildings
Our view: Board must adopt strong public records, public meetings policies
Even if foreclosures magically stopped today, Stark County would have more than 14,000 buildings sitting empty, attracting trouble.
Some of these houses and other buildings have become targets of vandals, or soon may be. Some are being used by criminals, or soon may be. Many have brought down the value of neighboring homes, or soon will.
These problems urgently need solutions, but neither the private sector nor government can solve them alone. Stark County government is looking at a promising option: establishing a land bank.
We support this good idea, with one caveat: The land bank, which would be a quasi-governmental board, must make its work transparent through strong policies on public records and public meetings.
County commissioners are considering allowing such a board to acquire abandoned and foreclosed properties. It could then demolish the buildings and sell the land or transfer the buildings to private owners, such as neighbors or companies that want to develop the property. The land bank would fund its operations with a portion of the money the county collects in delinquent property taxes.
A land bank could help to stem the blight that has ravaged neighborhoods throughout Stark County in the wake of the foreclosure epidemic. A land bank also would return to the property tax rolls some buildings that would otherwise be unsellable because of back taxes.
A relatively new change in Ohio law permits counties to establish these land banks. Cuyahoga County, whose abandoned-house problem is unimaginable by Stark County standards, has led the way. Several other counties have started or are looking into creating land banks.
One concern has been whether school districts would buy into the idea, as it would involve some loss of their property tax funding. But Larry Morgan, superintendent of the Stark County Educational Service Center, said the districts will come on board.
Morgan wants the land bank to create its own ethics policy because it would otherwise be exempt from state ethics laws. That’s our concern with the need for strong public-access policies, as well.
We are pointing out this need during Sunshine Week, the nationwide celebration of the laws that keep government open and transparent. The board of a Stark County land bank should make every week Sunshine Week by ensuring easy access to information that will let Stark Countians judge how this admirable experiment is working.