If ever there was an argument for strong code enforcement in the city of Schenectady, it was contained in the April 5 Page One story about the city’s recent foreclosure activities and the problems associated with a long-vacant building on the 200 block of State Street.
The story contained some mixed news: The city has netted $1.7 million in back taxes this year from property owners who have been threatened with foreclosure. The news would have been better (and needs to get better soon because there’s $5.5 million in the budget from it) if not for 237 State St. — a building in the middle of a block that city and Metroplex officials have been trying hard to revitalize.
The building was damaged in a December 2012 fire set by squatters who had surreptitiously moved into the vacant building, bypassed National Grid’s electric meter and set up an unsafe network of extension cords to their own meter.
This probably wouldn’t have happened if the city’s code enforcement staff and other city officials had kept closer tabs on the building. Shortly after the fire, Mayor Gary McCarthy acknowledged that the property should have been on a “constantly updated” vacant property inventory, but wasn’t because three years previously, its owners had told the city they might open a gym there.
Coincidentally, a different story in the same edition addressed the city’s long-problematic code enforcement issue — with a more positive spin. It indicated that compliance has improved thanks to a more coordinated effort between new Building Inspector Eric Shilling and the city’s law department.
Where in the past, cases against absentee landlords were routinely being thrown out of court for lack of sound evidence, or for underhanded enforcement tactics, the city has been doing a better job making cases stick: In the past 15 months, it has been successful in 150 of them, with the owner in each case “coming into full compliance.” Code enforcement officers are doing a better job documenting their visits to substandard properties, their conversations with owners, etc. so that when the city gets to court with one, there’s less opportunity for additional foot-dragging.
If the city had had its act together two years ago, 237 State St. might have been more properly secured and a fire might never occurred there. Instead of the owner declaring bankruptcy and undermining the city’s efforts to develop the rest of the block, he might have paid his arrears ($120,000), or the city might have been able to foreclose on the place and gotten its money.
As things stand now, it has to wait for the owner’s bankruptcy filing to play out. And wait...