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War on blight in Gloversville has many fronts

Joe DiMezza, Gloversville Neighborhood Quality Administrator, patrols the street looking for blight

GLOVERSVILLE — If there’s a frontline in the war on blight in Gloversville, city Neighborhood Quality Administrator Joe DiMezza is the soldier on it.

“I take things personally, because I’ve lived here for 52 years,” DiMezza said as he drove through city neighborhoods Saturday looking for blight.

DiMezza said he’s seen first hand the impact of blight on Gloversville. He said the first home he ever bought in the city in the 1980s for $58,000, recently sold for only $19,000. He said when he sees blight, what he really sees is theft.

“I feel like when somebody misuses their house — whether it’s garbage on the front lawn or debris or whatever — they’re stealing from their neighbor because they’re bringing down the value of that other house, so, they’re basically stealing from people without them even knowing it,” he said. “And, I’ll go a step further, those people are stealing from other neighborhoods because those other neighborhoods now have to compensate for the neighborhood that was brought down by blight.”

In other cases, DiMezza said, he’s had to act a “translator” between neighbors arguing between hedgerows or even as a kind of detective helping people to determine why they’ve littered on their own lawns.

“This happened the other day, somebody had a pizza box with pizza in it and threw it out front, almost like a Frisbee,” he said. “I’d already talked to this guy numerous times at this point, so I just knocked on the door and I asked him why this pizza box, which was open with pizza in it, was strewn on his lawn. He blamed it on the wind. I try to be careful with what I say, but I said ‘I don’t think it was the wind.'”

DiMezza, 55, is a retired city firefighter who has been on the job as Gloversville’s NQA officer since August 2020. The job is part-time, paying $20 an hour, and is funded by a two-year $125,000 grant the city received from the New York State Housing Stabilization Fund Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Another $150,000 grant from the same source helped fund the initial creation of the NQA’s office, which also includes an administrative clerk working under DiMezza.

The NQA’s job is to identify city code violations, like when there’s junk on a person’s front lawn, or sidewalks that haven’t had the snow shoveled. He works with property owners or tenants to either get the violations cleaned up, or he’ll issue a $30 citation ticket.

DiMezza said he takes calls from residents complaining about blight on their neighbor’s properties and from members of the Common Council who tell him where to look for blight inside the city’s six different wards. He said he has to try to approach the problem with humor, even though it makes him mad sometimes.

“I had this one guy, I won’t tell you where, he was trying to tell me that they weren’t taking his recyclables,” DiMezza said. “And I told him, ‘this is the same Chef Boyardee can I’ve seen for two months.’ And, you could tell he was trying not to laugh, but I think I made my point. So, we got into a nice conversation, and he did laugh, actually, a little and I said, ‘how would you feel if somebody did that to you?’ And after that he cleaned it up.”

CHANGING STRATEGY

Before Gloversville created the NQA job the city’s codes were mostly enforced by firefighters, one per shift.

“It was a little bit cumbersome,” Fire Chief Tom Groff said. “You had 28 different people applying 28 different methodologies to 28 different areas of the city.”

DiMezza was more succinct in his criticism.

“It was like trying to have a dog with 28 owners — it didn’t work,” he said.

It was also slower. Mayor Vince DeSantis said during his two decades on the bench as Gloversville city judge he became intimately familiar with the dysfunctions in the way the city tried to enforce its codes.

“Everything had to be in the form of a [court] order to remedy, giving the owner 72 hours to remedy the problem before anything else was done, before a citation was done,” he said. “And now you had code enforcement officers that would be working shifts where they were on for three days and then off for a bunch of time, so, you know, it ended up being a week, a week and a half, before things ever got done.”

At last week’s Common Council meeting the council voted to approve a change to the city’s code to allow for administrative citations to be issued for landscaping requirements, such as the mowing of lawns, hedges and bushes and for any “visible refuse, litter and unsanitary conditions” that can be seen from the exterior of properties.

“So now we have citations, administrative citations that are similar to parking tickets,” DeSantis said. “So now the NQA officer can ticket somebody for a violation. It’s administrative, and it’s not a ticket to go to court. If you don’t remove snow from your sidewalk, or you have junk and debris laying all over the front of the house — it’s $30.”

DeSantis said people can appeal the fines to the city’s three-member Administrative Appeals Panel, the members of whom are: City Assessor Joni Dennie, City Clerk Jennifer Mazur and Deputy Commissioner of Finance Maryann Reppenhagen.

“So, if someone has an excuse, or something like that, they’re very fair, they’ll throw something out if they feel that person needs a break,” DeSantis said of the panel.

But, if people don’t comply the fines escalate, going to $90 after 60 days. If people don’t pay the fines they are eventually added to the property’s city property tax bill.

DeSantis said when he first ran for the Common Council’s 3rd Ward council seat in 2015 the thing he heard over and over again was how fed up residents in Gloversville were with blight in the city.

“Going door to door, the biggest complaint was when are you going to get after these people who don’t take care of their houses?” he said. ” We all got this. We all got the same feedback from every ward. And so the top priority since 2016 has been let’s do something about this blight, so we’ve been at this for about five years, and we’re finally getting some real results.”

WAR ON BLIGHT POLICIES

The city’s five year war on blight has included more than just the creation of the NQA officer job and changes to the city code. It also involves Gloversville’s Vacant Property Ordinance, put in place in 2016, a renewed commitment to demolishing vacant buildings, the creation of the city’s first Property Dispensation Committee to administer direct sales of foreclosed properties to responsible owners and another change to the city code to grant the fire department the power to inspect two-family dwellings in the same way they currently apartment buildings with three or more units.

Sixth Ward Councilman Wrandy Siarkowski said he’s seen the politics of fighting blight change during the course of his tenure on the council. He said after the city’s finances began to improve after an influx of sales tax from the construction of the Walmart Supercenter, the number of people calling for the city to fight blight began to sharply outnumber the number of people in opposition to the changes the council and the mayor have made to fight blight in Gloversville.

“I think once we got started on all of this, and people in the neighborhoods started recognizing that it was improving the quality of life in the city it was almost like a snowball going downhill — it keeps getting bigger and bigger,” Siarkowski said. “I see it where businesses and people are very, very happy with what we’re doing. When the see results, the get tuned-in to what we’re trying to do.”

One of the biggest changes has been Gloversville’s vacancy law, which was modeled after a successful program implemented in the city of Geneva, New York. The law gives the city’s fire chief the power to declare a property vacant, and then requires the property’s owner to register the property and put together a plan to either rehabilitate it, keep it vacant or demolish it, and the plan has to be implemented within one year. If the owner of the vacant property doesn’t comply, a surcharge of $1,500 goes onto the property’s taxes, in year two the surcharge goes to $2,500 and by the third year it’s up to $5,000.

“So, it’s a considerable hit that really gets their attention,” DeSantis said. “And that’s how we’ve gotten the number of vacant properties reduced so much.”

Groff said at the start of the vacant property program Gloversville had about 365 vacant properties, but since then the number has been reduced to 132, 98 of which are registered and participating in the program. Of the 98 registered vacant properties about 48 are owned by banks.

“A lot of what happens is with these vacant houses, you have foreclosures or people just leave, and the banks are stuck with the zombie type of houses, and so the banks will pay the fees,” Groff said.

DeSantis said the vacancy law gives banks and incentive to do something with the properties and get them occupied, and the banks can still be cited for not mowing lawns or other violations, giving the city a myriad of tools to keep vacant properties from bringing down the value of whole neighborhoods.

DEMOLISHING BLIGHT

Groff said, so far the vacancy law has raised $250,000, which combined with the fines collected by the NQA office has helped fund about $500,000 worth of property demolitions in the city since 2019.

DeSantis said when he first took office he made it a priority to acquire 10 vacant foreclosed properties from

Fulton County to help deal with a backlog of properties that needed to be torn down.

“I had to go to the council, and they were on board with taking a proactive stance in getting rid of some of these derelict properties in the neighborhoods that had been there for a long time,” DeSantis said. “When you have a neglected property, it just deteriorates further and further. These properties were county owned. And so what happened was the county transferred title to the city on the strength of our commitment to actually doing the demolitions.”

Groff said Gloversville has partnered with Fulton County’s “Operation Green Scene” demolition team to bring down an additional 15 properties since then, with Fulton County also agreeing to a low garbage tipping fee of $25 for demolition debris, considerably less than $75-$100 tipping fees that would be charged a private-sector demolition.

Groff said the demolitions have improved every city neighborhood where they have occurred.

“The lots all look nice, you know, you went to an area where you had a crummy house or an old derelict house that needed to be torn down, and it had just sat there, and now there’s nice grassy lots in between some of the houses,” he said. “We also took down a lot of buildings that were at risk for burning down. That mill up on Division Street, that was a huge wooden fire hazard, and would have been a disaster to fight a fire at.”

Some of the vacant lots that are too small for modern building construction have been sold to adjacent city property owners to help them expand their own parcels by the city’s first-ever Property Dispensation Committee, a tool created by the Common Council in May to try to steer properties toward responsible owners.

The city in May also purchased 10 foreclosed properties, most with houses on them, from Fulton County for a total of $145,404, and has been selling the properties through the Property Dispensation Committee.

DeSantis said blighted properties have long been ‘recycled’ through the county’s foreclosure auction, often going to irresponsible land speculators from outside of Gloversville who don’t have the intention of redeveloping them in a way that would be positive for the rest of the city.

“What we want is a system whereby there is an orderly way for the city to get those properties into the hands of responsible owners,” he said. “We want to get to the point where we are addressing the sources of blight, how does blight get into the community? How do these properties get to be blighted?”

DeSantis said he’s seen situations where all of the city’s anti-blight policies have come together to help improve the value of a resident’s home, like one man who recently moved to Gloversville from Vermont.

“He’s done a beautiful job with the home that he bought, but right next door to him was one of the properties that was owned by the county, and it was on their foreclosure list and it was a derelict property,” DeSantis said. “And when he came in to talk to us, he said, ‘You know, the real problem is that this property has been vacant for so long that it’s being occupied by squirrels, a lot of them!’ And he said he didn’t know what to do because they were all over the place … and we promised him that this would be the first one on the list for demolition. So, it was demolished, and the property eventually got before the Property Disposition Committee, and he applied to buy the lot, and he purchased the lot. And now we’ve just approved that at our last meeting, his ownership of the lot.

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