The road to recovery begins at home
Since becoming Wellsburg’s mayor in 2009, I’ve had the opportunity to visit and learn about cities in the Northern Panhandle and throughout the entire state of West Virginia as well. In that time, I’ve come to realize that what serves as one of the most significant challenges faced by Wellsburg is also an issue that many other places are struggling with as well: buyers from outside of the community who come in to purchase real estate at tax sales only to let the buildings become dilapidated, vacant eyesores in the cities we call home.
In the state of West Virginia, if an owner of real estate fails to pay their property taxes to the county, the following year that property is sold at a public auction for the price of the delinquent taxes owed on it. Following an 18-month redemption period, the purchaser at the auction takes ownership of that property as long as they have followed all of the rules to do so.
In a significant number of cases, the people who purchase these properties are not from the local area. They don’t have ties to the community, and have nothing invested in the town they’ve purchased that building or home in — except for the amount of back taxes they paid to buy the property.
As you can imagine, this lack of either a local connection or a meaningful financial investment on their part oftentimes leads to some unwanted outcomes. These properties regularly sit vacant or crumble even further due to a lack of involvement by their out-of-area owners, driving down home values or making the area less attractive for future development. This type of situation is evident across the state in many formerly vibrant downtowns or neighborhoods.
So how do we stop this from happening? How do we prevent these types of buyers from coming into our cities and making things even more difficult for us as we try to rebuild and redevelop our downtowns and ensure that homes in our neighborhoods don’t become uninhabitable? Legally, there is nothing to stop these types of transactions. It’s not against the law for someone to buy property in a county they don’t live in. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything that can be done to stop this problem — it just means that it’s our job to try to stop this kind of thing from happening in our town.
In November, all three counties in the Northern Panhandle will be holding their public auctions for properties with delinquent tax bills. In Hancock County it will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 6. In Brooke County on Wednesday, Nov. 13, and in Ohio County on Tuesday, Nov. 19. I would encourage everyone who has an interest in ensuring that our communities don’t continue to fall victim to these out of area buyers to be there and to invest locally. We are the ones who live in the neighborhoods where this happens on our streets.
We are the ones who shop in the downtowns where vacant storefronts sit crumbling, serving as a tax write-off for an owner who may have never even seen it.
If we want to stop this problem before it further erodes our communities we’ve got to send a message that we care about the place we live and that those who are looking to come in and make a quick buck at the expense of our cities are no longer welcome.
We’ve got tremendous potential in our communities here. We can make a difference by reinvesting locally and ensuring that those of us who care about our towns are the ones who have a say in how they’re redeveloped. The road to recovery starts here at home, so let’s make it happen.
(Sue Simonetti is the mayor of Wellsburg, West Virginia, having first been elected in 2009 and reelected in 2013 and again in 2017. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Business Development Corporation (BDC) of the Northern Panhandle, a member of the Board of Directors of the Top of West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Brooke Hancock Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission.)