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Syracuse Land Bank wants fewer restrictions on funding and some exemptions from county fees

Tom Magnarelli
Katelyn Wright (left), executive director of the Syracuse Land Bank at a Syracuse Common Council committee meeting with Vito Sciscioli (right) who is on the board of directors.


The Greater Syracuse Land Bank, which acquires tax-delinquent properties with the goal of getting them back on the tax roll, is renegotiating its contract with the city. 


At a recent Syracuse Common Council committee meeting, Katelyn Wright, the executive director of the land bank, said in 2014 and 2015 the land bank paid about $250,000 to Onondaga County in sewer usage fees. The land bank has made more than $1 million from real estate sales and can use that money and any unrestricted funds towards maintenance fees. Wright said she is optimistic the county could exempt them from those sewer charges in 2016.


“But it's really critical that they do that otherwise it could become a very large percentage of our operating expenses each year,” Wright said.


That's because the land bank is taking on more properties which means more fees. So far, they've sold 156 properties but still have 546 that they're trying to sell. There are still 2,056 vacant properties in the city of Syracuse.


Ryan McMahon, the chairman of the Onondaga County Legislature said he does not think the county will waive the sewage fees across the board for the land bank.


“I think, when you take a look at what we've forgiven in taxes so the land bank gets the properties compared to what the sewer fees are, they aren't even in the same ball park,” McMahon said.


The county and city could, at times, be giving up tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes for a property compared to maybe several hundred dollars in sewage fees. Also, McMahon said homeowners who cannot afford to pay their taxes will set up a lease with the land bank.


“Why would we forgive those sewers?" McMahon said. "People are living there.”


The county has restricted funding to the land bank in the past but is now providing $300,000 in flexible money while still restricting $200,000 to a revolving loan fund. McMahon said it is needed for investors and landlords to get financing to rehabilitate a property.


“Part of what we said was let's create a revolving loan fund for these investors who have been vented by the land bank to be able to apply for loans or lines of credits to rehab these facilities to get them back on the tax roles and moving forward,” McMahon said.


The city of Syracuse, which has given $1.5 million in unrestricted funds in the past, is now looking at restricting some of their funding to demolitions and maintenance of vacant lots.


Syracuse Common Councilor Chad Ryan said he is for restricting some of the funds for demolitions because some properties are structurally unfit and rehabilitating properties in certain neighborhoods is not cost-effective.


Ryan also acknowledged that it is not profitable for the land bank to take on vacant lots, but it helps solve a big neighborhood issue.


"When the land bank takes a property I know the grass is going to get cut," Ryan said. "I know there's not going to be trash there.”


The lank bank said having unrestricted funds gives them more operational flexibility and will allow them to take on more properties. The land bank would like to know by mid-August if some of the money they will be receiving from the city is restricted.  

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.