School Board Delays Vote on Joining Land Bank

Armstrong School District Board President Chris Choncek discusses his concerns about joining the Armstrong County Land Bank with ASD Solicitor Lee Price at last Thursday’s school board caucus meeting.

Discussion on joining a county effort to address blighted properties is not going to be on the agenda when the Armstrong School District Board of Directors convenes tonight at their public meeting.

“The Armstrong County Commissioners on December 20 adopted an ordinance creating a Land Bank for Armstrong County,” Solicitor Lee Price explained last Thursday night to school directors. “Any municipality in the county can participate, and also the school district.

Price explained that the purpose of the Land Bank would be to “acquire property that is generally dilapidated, abandoned, or has a lot of delinquent taxes on it. Their goal is to spur improvement in neighborhoods by acquiring these properties, then ‘flipping’ them to another owner who would agree to make various improvements for particular uses of the property.”

Price said that the school district could participate, but would not have a voice in the decision-making.

“Initially, the Land Bank’s governing body is not going to be a separate board. Instead, the county elected to designate the Armstrong County Redevelopment Authority to serve as the Land Bank Board,” Price said.

Currently, Kittanning and Ford City boroughs and East Franklin Township has joined the Land Bank. Price also said that Apollo Borough and Apollo-Ridge School District was also going to join.

Price said there was no initial fee to participate. However, once a property was sold, Price said that ASD would agree to giving back to the Land Bank 50% of real estate taxes for five years.

“If they flip a property, at that point, we would become the major contributor to the Land Bank,” Price said.

School Director Dr. Paul Lobby expressed his concerns.

“So the downside to us is that we are losing 50% of tax dollars (for five years), but there may not be any tax dollars being generated on these properties anyway. The upside is we are helping to get properties back on the tax roles.”

Lobby said he was bothered that ASD would not have a representative on the Land Bank Board.

“Since our contribution would be the biggest contribution financially to this, it would be nice to at least have some input into the operation – even if it was just on an advisory capacity, even if we weren’t necessarily on the Board. They are asking a lot but not giving us (the ability to provide) input.”

School Director Doug Smith also said he was concerned about oversight of the Land Bank, since it could acquire a property and that property would be tax exempt until they sold it.

Price said he would go back to the Redevelopment Authority and ask that they create an advisory committee and allow each of the member municipalities, county, and school districts to designate somebody to be on that committee.

Price said the Land Bank also has the ability to apply for grants or tap into Foundations for money to acquire properties.

“It is easier for a Land Bank to acquire properties that it is for municipalities to do it by putting liens on the property or going through sheriff sale.”

Price said that Westmoreland County runs a similar program and it has been successful.

The Board postponed a commitment vote until Solicitor Price gets answers to questions back to the Board.

ASD directors will meet tonight at 7:30 in Room 2050 (Large Group Instruction Room) at West Hills Intermediate School, 175 Heritage Park Drive, East Franklin Township.