City council open to revisiting vacant properties ordinance

Photo by Linda Harris Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna took an unidentified council member to task Tuesday for being part of what he called a “Facebook trial” in which a property owner who had refused to pay the city’s vacant building registration fee suggested the city was essentially “shaking people down” when it passed the ordinance.

Steubenville City Council members said Tuesday they’re open to revisiting a 2014 ordinance requiring owners of vacant properties to register them and pay an annual fee.

But they also said that doesn’t mean they’re willing to scuttle the measure altogether — or that they’re willing to circumvent proper procedure to bring it to council floor.

Fourth Ward Councilman Scott Dressel attempted to sunshine legislation dealing with vacant residential and commercial property registration, but was interrupted by 6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna. Villamagna said legislation must either be reported out of committee or garner support from at least two council members before it can come to the floor.

After taking Dressel to task, Villamagna then chastised a council member, who he did not identify, for being part of a social media “trial” in which a property owner who refuses to pay the fee suggested the city essentially was “shaking people down” when it passed the ordinance.

“Are we going to run council meetings in chambers or are we going to run them on Facebook?” Villamagna asked, pointing out “over 200 people have paid, but one person does not want to pay.”

“When you buy a property, it’s your responsibility, not the city’s,” he said. “We’re not shaking anybody down.”

He said the ordinance has been on the books nearly five years.

“This council, we all agreed we had to do something with vacant structures,” Villamagna said. “We have to have the interests of the city, not an individual, (at heart).”

Third Ward Councilman Erik Timmons said the fees were “worth looking into, for sure,” while 1st Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto said it was “very unprofessional” for the councilman in question to discuss it on Facebook rather than in council chambers.

“Nothing should be discussed on Twitter or Facebook, it should be brought to council,” DiLoreto said.

Dressel said after the meeting his goal is to see buildings brought to code and re-used. This morning, he said he had been aware of the Facebook conversation “and also well aware of my Constitutional right of free speech, so I’m fine with (it).”

“This legislation and the thought to change or repeal it started four weeks ago with conversations and the timing just happened to be the same, so perhaps I should have waited,” Dressel noted, pointing out that before coming into the meeting, “I had a second of a committee member who changed their mind as it was presented, which is why sunshining the ordinance failed. Had that second happened the outcome would have been different. But what its failure did do is make it clear that there needs to be a discussion around getting folks to clean up their properties and get them in use. So I’m happy about that.”

Villamagna said there’d been no hint prior to Tuesday’s meeting that anyone on council wanted to take a second look at the registration fees, which start at $200 for a residential property and $400 for commercial properties, then go up each year a property remains empty.

“I’ll revisit anything,” he added. “We could tweak it, maybe. But if we tweak it, I want it to be council’s decision and not just because of one person who hasn’t paid his fees — there’s a lot of people who have paid.”

Hahn said she was open to using the fees they collect to fund the city’s demolition program. She also pointed out about 1,000 properties in Steubenville are vacant, “with over 300 of them on LaBelle alone.”

“That has an enormous impact,” she said.