SCHENECTADY -- A proposal to increase annual fees for properties registered with Schenectady’s vacant building registry moved forward on Monday.
Members of the council’s City Development and Planning Committee unanimously voted the increased fees out of committee.
The registry applies to both commercial and residential properties.
Councilman John Polimeni, who proposed the legislation, said vacant properties lead to increased costs on municipalities. He said the higher fees were not meant to be a “money grab;” they were meant to help reduce vacant and blighted properties in the city.
“It is a real hindrance to a lot of our neighborhoods,” Polimeni said. “This will help alleviate that.”
Mayor Gary McCarthy, citing figures the city worked out with the University at Albany’s Center for Technology in Government, said a vacant building could cost a municipality more than $60,000 over a seven-year period. That figure includes costs such as Police, Fire and Code departments calls, demolition costs and loss of property tax revenues.
Polimeni said these properties also contribute to the decline of property values in neighborhoods by about 1 to 2 percent. Based on figures he has seen, with costs for emergency responses and demolitions, vacant properties cost a municipality on average $45,000 annually, Polimeni said.
“Increased fees to alleviate blight in neighborhoods is something worth considering,” Polimeni said.
Currently, the fee for registering a vacant property is $1,050 in the first year on the registry, $1,550 in the second year, $2,050 in the third year, $3,550 in the fourth year and $4,050 in the fifth year.
If the increases are approved during the City Council Meeting on July 9, the fees will be $2,500 for the first year, $3,000 for the second year, $3,500 for the third year, $5,000 on the fourth year and $5,500 for the fifth year.
Each year will include an additional fee for the monitoring of the property, though Polimeni said that figure has yet to be established. McCarthy said the city was in negotiations with a company to monitor the properties, but declined to provide more details.
The registry requires property owners to come up with a demolition plan with a completion date of up to 180 days. If there is a plan to rehabilitate the home, that must be done within a year, but the city could grant an extension.
The registry states that if a building will be vacant for up to 90 days, the property owners must provide a plan to secure the building and make sure it is in compliance with all city codes. A reason must also be provided for why it will be vacant.
If not, the building is considered a nuisance after more than 90 days, according to the registration form.
City Council President Ed Kosiur noted the city earns $400,000 annually from the registry fees, but McCarthy said that doesn’t offset the costs for the city having to deal with the properties.
Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo asked if property owners would incur a fee if they tried to sell a home but had a hard time doing so.
City Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico said it would depend on how the property owner maintained the property, but McCarthy said it would also depend on how hard they were trying to sell.
“We try to use the carrot before the stick,” McCarthy said.
Approximately 80 percent of the vacant properties are owned in some way by banks. Falotico said in those situations, the city can simply contact the bank about the vacant property and the bank will comply and register it with the city.
In other instances, the city will issue a code violation to a property owner for a vacant property. The property owner will then appear in court on the violation, and the part of the resolution with the city involves them registering their building with the city.
Perazzo, who is on the City Development and Planning Committee, said the city needed to do something to address the issue.
“People are walking away and houses are falling apart,” Perazzo said. “Anything we can do to deter that, I’m on board,”
Independent Councilman Vince Riggi said he agreed with the legislation and that many of the council members fielding a lot of calls about vacant properties.
“Something has to be done,” Riggi said.
Also on Monday, the council’s Administration Efficiency Committee unanimously approved an amendment to the city’s multiple-dwelling units ordinance. The city’s current policy is to inspect those properties whenever there is a change in tenants.
If approved by the full council, the amendment will require multiple-dwelling units be inspected every three years. It also requires the city Buildings Department keep an accurate list of all multiple-dwelling units, and that city Chief Building Inspector Chris Lunn must develop a plan to monitor them.
This was meant to come into compliance with the state's requirements on inspections for multiple-dwelling units.
The change is one of many to the Buildings Department's procedures following critical reports from the state Comptroller’s Office and a grand jury report. Both pointed to deficiencies in the city’s code enforcement efforts.
The state Comptroller’s Office cited in its audit in January that the city failed to inspect 684 of the 1,440 multiple-dwelling units in the city during the state-required, three-year period.
It also comes after a grand jury report said the city’s Bureau of Code Enforcement failed to act on 14 code violation reports filed by city firefighters ahead of the March 2015 Jay Street Fire that killed four residents.