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Blight Task Force to meet today

Newly created group will deal with thorny issues

A newly created group will meet today for the first time to take on one of the most common — and intractable — problems for almost any city: blight.

The Altoona Blight Task Force will be dealing with a subject that can include thorny issues such as neighborhood aesthetics, property values, poverty, personal and family motivation, pride and priorities; reporting of neighbor by neighbor and the feuding that can result; personal freedom and resentment at being told how to care for one’s property.

The 18-member group, which includes city and agency officials, a blight consultant and regular residents, will try to draw up a comprehensive plan based on how the city could benefit from adopting tactics outlined in “From Blight to Bright,” a municipal “toolkit” published by the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, Altoona’s partner in the task force effort — which was initiated by Mayor Matt Pacifico.

The effort should yield a diversity of opinions and include an examination of successful anti-blight practices in other communities, enabling the city to “rethink the process,” said city Community Development Director Lee Slusser, a task force member.

The city has a Codes and Inspections Department with several code officers, all of whom conduct scheduled rental inspections and both complaint-driven and proactive property maintenance inspections.

The city also has a blighted property demolition program.

One of the keys to improving performance will be to intervene sooner — before properties have gone without maintenance for three years, as they move through tax sales and into the county repository, by which time they’re usually doomed for demolition, Slusser said.

“There’s a time limit to how long properties are salvageable,” Slusser said.

It would benefit the city to find options to demolition, said City Manager Marla Marcinko, also a task force member.

It will be critical to define the problem before creating a comprehensive strategy, Marcinko said.

The strategy needs to be customized where necessary to include all neighborhoods, she said.

For years, blight has been a concern of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce’s Public Policy Committee, said Chamber CEO and President Joe Hurd, another task force member.

“(It) seems to me to be something that a lot of people — mostly elected officials — have kind of given lip service to for many years and not a whole lot of tangible efforts have been undertaken,” Hurd said.

Improvements would be welcome, although given the complexities of the issue, it will behoove the group to be careful in the policies it recommends and in the way it presents them, according to Hurd.

Just by convening the task force, Pacifico will raise expectations and probably create “consternation” among some members of the community, Hurd said.

“I give Matt a lot of credit for this,” Hurd said.

But the very exercise of reaching out to community partners will be helpful, Slusser predicted.

Tactics discussed in Blight to Bright include an initial focus on the very worst properties, little slack for absentee owners with plenty of resources, funding help for owners who can’t afford needed repairs; “data-driven progressive discipline,” rather than complaint-driven enforcement; keeping comprehensive records of violations and enforcement actions; appointment of a single judge to handle all blight cases; and adoption of an ordinance to allow for “quality of life ticketing.”

A $32,400 anti-blight grant from the Department of Community and Economic Development is helping to fund the initiative.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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