Councilor: City waits too long to tackle dilapidated buildings

Nathan Thompson |
A look down Pawhuska's Kihekah Avenue near Seventh Street shows some buildings along downtown are in a state of disrepair.

Nathan Thompson/Journal-Capital

City of Pawhuska officials are debating on what can be done to address some buildings in the heart of town that are in a state of disrepair, but the cost to taxpayers to abate the issue is a stumbling block.

Friday, Ward 2 City Councilor Steve Holcombe sent out an email accusing the City Council and city leadership of adopting a “sit back and see” approach to dealing with buildings he claims are dilapidated.

“It’s time for the community (the Chamber of Commerce, the Pawhuska Merchant’s Association, the Osage Tribe, the Osage County Industrial Authority, and citizens at large) to come together to demand of the Pawhuska City Council that it immediately address the issue of dilapidated buildings in downtown Pawhuska,” Holcombe wrote in the email. “Just driving down Kihekah, or Main Street, or the side streets that feed into the downtown, it readily appears that there are more than a few dilapidated buildings to be addressed which are of course owned by any number of individuals or entities.”

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Holcombe said he wants to begin the discussion for people to speak about the concerns.

“We’ve had an issue with dilapidated buildings for a long time, starting with the Triangle Building which is finally being addressed,” Holcombe said. “In my opinion, the city is not doing enough to address the issues of dilapidated and abandonded buildings. The Triangle Building sat for many, many years without anything being done. It was only because of (the Pioneer Woman’s Mercantile) coming in directly across the street that something is now being done. The city sat way too long and did nothing, and I’m concerned this approach will continue with the other buildings downtown.”

In his email, Holcombe wrote Pawhuska’s economy is booming, and it’s time for city officials to begin addressing the issue and push property owners to fix the buildings. He proposes if property owners do not abate the buildings, the city of Pawhuska should do it at taxpayer expense, with the hope the city can recuperate the costs through tax liens.

“I’m suggesting that the city do more than issue notices for grass to be mowed around (and, in some cases, inside of!) these dilapidated buildings,” Holcombe wrote. “I’m suggesting that the city be pushed for the good of the community to immediately notify the owners of all dilapidated that they must rehab or tear down their dilapidated buildings. And if they do not, then the City will do so and, if need be, sell the properties to recoup liens established against the costs of the City’s rehabbings (sic) or tear downs.”

However, Oklahoma law does not have a provision for municipalities to “rehab” a building that has been declared dilapidated. The law limits cities and towns to only be able to tear down and remove a dilapidated building after a lengthy process of notifying the property owner, hearings, boarding and securing, public notices and expensive removal.

Holcombe said there is more leeway for the city to do something if a building is abandoned but not yet declared dilapidated.

“I just want us to act. The current procedure of just waiting around without any pressure from the city is not appropriate,” Holcombe said. “I don’t want us to do something that is prohibited, but we have to do more. That’s my point.”

Pawhuska City Manager Mike McCartney said although the city would like to address the issue of buildings in disrepair, manpower and money are limited.

“We have two people, Steve Hughes and Bill Todd, who work on code enforcement issues and do a lot of research on ordinances and state law to make sure we are moving in the right direction,” McCartney said.

The cost for taxpayers to demolish structures is a concern as well. It would skyrocket into the hundreds of thousands of dollars with no sure promise the city would ever get that money back.

“Our economy is doing well because of the increase in sales tax revenue from recent developments, but we are in no means rich because of it” McCartney said. “If we were to go in, declare a building as dilapidated and the property owner does not follow the orders to repair or abate the public nuisance, who pays for it? The taxpayers do. Sure, we can put a lien on a vacant lot after we tear down the building, but that is no guarantee someone will buy it and repay the thousands of dollars it costs us to do it.”

McCartney said he has been in contact with several property owners to talk to them about repairing structures, and many of the owners are doing work.

“The city wants the property owners to clean it up and we don’t want to own the property and then tear it down,” McCartney said. We have to proceed with caution, understanding that some people are really working on the issue and trying to get work done. We just can’t hammer people to death. We just don’t have the fiscal resources or the manpower as a city to hammer these people.”

Holcombe wrote in his email the current procedure is unacceptable and encouraged Pawhuska residents to petition for the item to be placed on the agenda for the City Council’s next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday.

“It is no longer acceptable to leave ‘off the table’ the issue of dilapidated buildings in downtown Pawhuska,” he wrote. “The ‘sit back and wait’ model that was employed to address (actually, not address) the dilapidated Triangle Building (though, yes, it appears that it is finally being privately rehabbed and developed after all of these many, many years) is unacceptable for addressing the remaining dilapidated structures in downtown Pawhuska.”