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Watertown soon will implement ‘zombie’ properties program


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WATERTOWN — City Councilman Cody J. Horbacz isn’t so sure that the city should accept a nearly $150,000 state grant to combat dozens of abandoned and vacant homes that dot the city.

During budget deliberations earlier this week, Councilman Horbacz urged his colleagues not to go forward with accepting the $149,492 state grant to address so-called “zombie properties” and other abandoned and vacant homes.

He contended that the city will be adding staff in the city’s Code Enforcement office to implement the program and then be forced to either pay their salaries after the grant runs out in two years or lay them off.

Councilman Stephen A. Jennings, an advocate for housing issues in the city, disagreed.

“I support the program 100 percent,” he said,

The city is moving forward with putting together the state program.

City Assessor Brian S. Phelps said the program should be implemented in the next few months. The city already received half of a $149,492 state grant.

In October, the city was awarded the funding through the state attorney general’s office while officials were trying to figure out how to deal with “zombie properties” — vacant houses that are abandoned by owners before the foreclosure process begins — and other housing issues.

Under the two-year program, the city will be able to identify and keep better track of abandoned homes, and help homeowners avoid foreclosure. Earlier this year, Mr. Phelps determined about 150 zombie properties existed in Watertown.

Using the grant, the codes office will add a building codes inspector and a secretary, but an administrative aide will be eliminated. The staffing changes will cost $38,105 in salaries for the first six months of the fiscal year.

The city is purchasing computer software upgrades that will be used to make it easier to track zombie properties and determine their condition, Mr. Phelps said.

The new computer equipment also will be used for a rental registration program the city will start on Jan. 1.

Community outreach will be another component of the program, Mr. Phelps said. A direct mail campaign will let property owners know how they can prevent their homes from going into foreclosure and provide information about state programs that can help them. He’s also forming a vacant/zombie property task force to work on the issue.

The city also will complete physical inspections to determine which properties are more vulnerable.

Councilman Jennings believes the zombie program is a good beginning, adding the city should expand its housing efforts.

“This investment is vitally needed,” he said.

Watertown was among six north country municipalities that received the state money through the AG’s Local Initiatives Support Corporation Zombie and Vacant Properties Remediation and Prevention Initiative Grant program.

The state program was established last year by the AG’s office with funds drawn from the $3.2 billion settlement agreement with Morgan Stanley that Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman arranged. The settlement generated $550 million in cash and consumer relief for New Yorkers.

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