Pa. House panel approves blight-fighting bill | Friday Morning Coffee
Rep. Bob Merski, D-Erie, says his bill will buttress the Shapiro administration’s community revitalization efforts across the state
Legislation that would help communities across the state fight blight is headed for the House floor.
On Wednesday, the House Housing and Community Development Committee voted 21-0 to approve Rep. Bob Merski’s, D-Erie’s bill allowing municipal governments to team up to fight blight.
The bill would, among other things, establish a new grant program, administered by the state Department of Community & Economic Development that would help pay for the hiring of new code enforcement officers and to strengthen existing programs, the northwestern Pennsylvania lawmaker said in a statement.
“The emphasis of this grant is to upgrade or remove blighted, abandoned and structurally unsafe structures and dwellings,” Merski wrote in a Feb. 1 memo seeking legislative support for his proposal.
“A municipality obtaining a grant must provide municipal funds equal to the amount of the state grant; in addition, a municipality can only receive this grant for [three] consecutive years,” the lawmaker wrote.
In his first budget address to the General Assembly in March, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro tucked a number of community revitalization initiatives into his proposed $44.4 billion spending plan for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.
That included pumping new money into the state’s Keystone Communities program, which encourages public-private partnerships to help neighborhoods grow and flourish, PennLive reported in March.
The Democratic governor emphasized his support for such efforts during his inaugural address, telling his audience that “we walked our main streets together and I listened to you,” during the 2022 campaign, and “I heard your stories,” according to PennLive.
On Thursday, Merski said his legislation would supplement the administration’s efforts.
“The governor has proposed new investments in community revitalization, and those projects can be transformative for Erie and other communities,” Merski said. “But we need to lay the groundwork by eliminating the blighted, abandoned properties and deter investment.”
Blight — in all its forms — has a real impact on the bottom line of communities across the state, according to a 2013 study by a trio of councils of governments in western Pennsylvania.
If left unaddressed, blight can result in:
- Higher vacancy rates in blighted blocks, higher maintenance costs, and uncollected taxes.
- A cycle of disinvestment that discourages new private investment in areas where it takes place.
- Lower property values.
“By all accounts, vacant properties are a curse. Just ask anyone who lives next to a drug den, a boarded-up firetrap or a trash-filled lot,” the National Vacant Properties Campaign concluded in a 2005 report.
“But abandonment often seems beyond the control of local officials, and it rarely incites a sense of urgency beyond the neighbors on the block where it occurs,” the report’s authors wrote at the time. “But the evidence shows that vacant properties are an expense that local governments simply cannot afford – and that the expense grows with every year a property remains vacant or abandoned.”
On Thursday, Merksi offered a similar sentiment — and his assistance.
“My bill would allow communities to join forces in fighting blight, and would bolster those efforts by providing the additional resources” they need to fight code violations, he said.
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