Stark County lays groundwork for land banking (Akron Beacon Journal)

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Stark County lays groundwork for land banking (Akron Beacon Journal)

CANTON: If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you will keep getting what you always got.

For this reason, Stark County commissioners are preparing to start a land bank to expedite the process of returning some of the county’s 17,657 tax-delinquent properties to productive use.

Existing methods of recycling abandoned property parcels take as long as a year and are sometimes futile, county Treasurer Alexander Zumbar, who is leading the land-banking effort, said in a recent interview.

“We’re stuck in a quandary; we can’t advance,” Zumbar said. “Unfortunately, we seem to be losing ground if we allow those properties to remain delinquent.”

He said a land bank could shorten the time for giving or selling delinquent properties to new owners to 4› months.

“Land bank” is the common name for a land reuse corporation organized under a relatively new state law. It is a quasi-governmental organization with the purpose of reclaiming, rehabilitating and reusing nonproductive land.

The Stark Community Foundation gave $7,500 to the local effort, being guided by one of its offspring, the Community Building Partnership of Stark County.

Zumbar said he intends to seek grants to fund the land bank. A new source of federal funding might become available, too.

Ongoing funding could come from an increase in the delinquent tax and assessment collection fund.

That money comes off the top of any late payments before money is forwarded to schools and other governmental subdivisions.

Currently, the county keeps 5 percent, or about $500,000 a year, which the prosecutor and treasurer share to continue to pursue arrearages.

The possibility that the county’s take from late payments could rise to 10 percent has raised some questions in educational leadership, said Mary Jo Shannon Slick, general counsel to the Stark County Educational Services Center.

Although the service center’s governing authority, the Stark County Board of Education, has taken no position on land banking, Shannon Slick said it looks like the schools would be asked to pay for county government’s work.

“This seems to be one more time when the voters pass school levies thinking it’s for the kids, and other governmental subdivisions want to come and take the money to do their job,” Shannon Slick said.

She compared it to tax abatement and tax-increment financing — two tools local governments can use to promote business development — that force schools to sacrifice some revenue.

“I’ve always been told that if you want to make money, sometimes you have to spend some money,” said Zumbar, the treasurer.

Schools, libraries and other taxing authorities would benefit in the long run, he said, if properties that are now a drain on communities can become productive again.

“We can re-engage and perhaps get some people interested in these neighborhoods,” Zumbar said. “This is a long-term approach.”

“We’ve got a decade’s worth of work to do,” said Joel Owens, director of the Community Building Partnership.

The partnership has contracted with the Cleveland-based Thriving Communities Institute, headed by former Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, who is credited with starting the Ohio land-banking movement.

Thriving Communities is part of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, an organization dedicated to conserving land in northern Ohio.

The problem with doing nothing, Owens said, is that no one wants to live in a neighborhood blighted by abandoned properties. He said every community in Stark County has the problem to some extent — even top-shelf areas like Avondale and Hills and Dales.

County commissioners are expected to start the process within a month to create a land bank that would be governed by a five- to nine-member board.

Commissioners Janet Weir Creighton, Peter Ferguson and Thomas Bernabei all expressed support for the project, although Creighton asked at a recent meeting about the potential worst-case scenario.

That would occur when the land bank accepts a property it shouldn’t have, Bernabei said, adding that monitoring the agency’s business should prevent that.

“Strategic acquisition of properties” will be the land bank’s goal, Zumbar said. Some land banks handle only parcels with willing buyers.

He does not expect the agency to hire employees.

“It would probably be me,” Zumbar said. “It all naturally flows through my office.”

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