County to raze Russo building

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County plans to demolish what’s known as the Russo building at 31st Street and South Branch Avenue in Altoona, an action that could cost about $250,000.

The structure on the property, now under the county’s control for lack of real estate tax payments, is beyond repair, county leaders agreed Tuesday.

“I don’t believe the building is in even remotely [rehabilitative] condition,” solicitor Nathan Karn said.

Karn said that because no one bid on the property during the county’s last sale, the county should take action to address the danger the structure presents.

Commissioner Ted Beam Jr. said the county’s highway department took measures to secure the building from intruders, but it remains a hazard.

Last year, a fire at the former slaughterhouse complex damaged portions of the deteriorating building, forcing the city to arrange for removal of unstable portions. It paid the $8,000 expense with block grant money dedicated for removing blight.

Commissioner Terry Tomassetti said he was inside the building in December with one of the county’s engineers.

“There are stairways without railings, some 15 and 20 feet high,” Tomassetti said. “There are walls missing.”

Under the state’s 1947 Real Estate Tax Sale Law, the county has the authority to seize properties whose owners fail to pay real estate taxes, then put the properties up for sale. If no one buys the properties, then they’re put into a repository.

Under the law, the county is responsible for those properties and any required maintenance, including demolition to eliminate a hazard.

“We’re required by law to tear it down,” Commissioner Diane Meling said. “We’re stuck.”

Commissioners faced the same situation in 2009 when the City of Altoona issued a demolition order to the county for the former Eagles building at 11th Street and 12th Avenue. Although they objected to county taxpayers paying to demolish a building in the city, commissioners made arrangements with the city to have the building demolished and the county covered the $279,000 cost through installments.

Tomassetti estimated the cost of demolishing the Russo Building at $250,000, which will again fall to the county to cover.

“Is it fair we pay for it? No. Sometimes things aren’t fair,” Tomassetti said.

The demolition job will be advertised for competitive bids, commissioners agreed.