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Audit of Syracuse Land Bank shows successes and potential problems

Tom Magnarelli
Syracuse City Auditor Martin Masterpole (left) and Onondaga County Comptroller Robert Antonacci (right).

There are about 1,800 vacant buildings in the city of Syracuse, according to the Syracuse Land Bank, which steps in to stabilize a property and resell it to responsible buyers when it gets foreclosed. A recently released audit of the land bank by Onondaga County and the city of Syracuse finds that while the organization has many successes, some potential problems lie ahead.

The audit released by the Onondaga County Comptroller Robert Antonacci and Syracuse City Auditor Martin Masterpole praises the Syracuse Land Bank for what they say is a job well done thus far. It sold 75 properties in 2014 and buyers pledged $4.2 million towards investments in those properties. The land bank held 470 properties at some point in 2014. But when visiting some of those properties, auditors found the maintenance was lacking. When the land bank acquires a property, they are responsible for the upkeep which, Masterpole said, they service to outside contractors.

"In some situations, they were on a weekly contract to mow the lawn and we show up and the lawn is 18 inches high," Masterpole said. "Clearly, somebody was being paid who wasn't doing that."

Antonacci recommends more oversight of the property managers and said auditors agree that a more long term funding plan is needed. Currently, the Land Bank has to request funding from the city and county each year.

"We think this year to year funding mechanism is really not workable it doesn't give the land bank the flexibility to go out and properly plan," Antonacci said. "There needs to be a commitment that the land bank is important to this community and the funding will be there for some time to come."

Masterpole said that can be difficult to do as lawmakers come and go and could potentially change any long term deals. Auditors also worry that the properties that did sell were some of the best and what is left are not as desirable. One item that could not be determined was how much the land bank was responsible for an increase in delinquent tax collection. The city of Syracuse anticipates an increase of $5.6 million for next year. The Land Bank has projected $7.6 million since they first started three years but that number could not be verified in the audit.

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.