Summit speeds up land bank effort (Akron Beacon Journal)

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Summit speeds up land bank effort (Akron Beacon Journal)

Summit County is speeding up plans to launch a land bank program so it can nab $3.78 million in state money available to demolish vacant and abandoned properties.

County leaders have been taking their time setting up a land bank — the idea was first recommended more than two years ago — and every major urban county in the state except Summit has one by now.

But Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has announced that he will hand out $75 million from a national mortgage settlement for demolition grants, and the deadline to apply is June 30.

While the demolition money and land bank are separate issues, they are tied together here because the grant requires matching money. The county wants to use its land bank to raise much of the matching cash, forcing it to abandon its methodical pace in setting up the program.

The county can’t risk losing out on the opportunity, said Jason Dodson, chief of staff for County Executive Russ Pry. Summit is eligible for up to $3.78 million.

Land banks are public authorities that take ownership of tax-foreclosed properties. The groups can raze blighted properties, fix up others to resell them or hang onto them for future development. The goal is to rid areas of abandoned eyesores that harm housing values and communities.

“It’s going to be a very useful tool in reclaiming neighborhoods,” county Fiscal Officer Kristen Scalise said. “It will help facilitate the return of properties to productive economic use.”

Local leaders estimate that there are at least 2,600 — and possibly up to 3,500 — vacant and abandoned homes in the county, with the majority in Akron, Barberton, Lakemore, Springfield Township and Twinsburg Township.

The county has asked cities, villages and townships to survey their communities and update the figures because money will be targeted to the hardest-hit areas.

“We have a real mess in our urban areas in the country, especially in states like this one and Michigan,” said Jim Rokakis, director of the nonprofit Thriving Communities Institute and a former Cuyahoga County treasurer who set up the first county land bank in the state.

He is helping Summit develop its program.

Akron Planning Director John Moore said the land bank, coupled with the state demolition funds, provides Summit County communities with a “wonderful opportunity.”

“We will be able to get a lot more structures cleaned up,” he said.

Akron has 2,600 houses that would qualify for demolition dollars under the rules that DeWine’s office put out, Moore said.

County Council is expected to vote today to allow Scalise to incorporate the nonprofit County Land Reutilization Corp.

The council also must take other steps this month to determine how the program will run and how it will be funded.

Dodson said the county’s Community and Economic Development Department would run the day-to-day operation and the land bank is expected to be overseen by a seven-member board made up of the county executive, fiscal officer and community representatives.

It would be funded through delinquent tax collections, which amount to about $30 million a year. Today, 95 percent of that money is distributed to communities, schools and other taxing entities, such as the Akron Zoo. The other 5 percent is kept to fund the tax foreclosure and delinquent tax collection process.

But under the plan, 5 percent — or $1.5 million — now going to the other entities would be shifted to the land bank.

County leaders have met with township trustees, school superintendents and mayors to explain that they would lose some cash.

Akron Public Schools and Akron stand to lose the most, $348,739 and $141,868, respectively, because that’s where the majority of tax delinquencies and tax foreclosures occur.

To appease those entities, the county plans to boost the interest rate on delinquent taxes from 3 percent to 12 percent. Through that effort, for example, Akron schools is expected to get back about half what it loses.

But Dodson and Scalise said the entities should ultimately get more money because properties would go back on the tax rolls and, at least theoretically, property values would increase.

“In the long run, it will be better for the communities,” Scalise said.

The money generated by the land bank won’t cover all the money needed to match the state demolition grant. (The first $500,000 doesn’t need to be matched.)

The county will seek additional cash from communities, foundations and other groups to make up the difference, Dodson said.

He estimated that the land bank should be able to tear down anywhere from 1,200 to 1,400 abandoned homes with the initial demolition grant and matching money.

The land bank doesn’t want to determine which properties should be demolished. Instead, it would set up agreements with individual communities so they can decide, Dodson said.

The county also doesn’t want to maintain or oversee property. Officials said they want to identify potential buyers right away — whether it’s a nonprofit that wants to build a house or even a neighbor who wants to expand his property by taking ownership of the land.

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