$15G in taxes spent on borough maintenance in '99 Centralia STI

From The Press Enterprise Sunday, March 12, 2000

CENTRALIA -- The state has been slowly cutting back on maintenance in this borough plagued by an underground mine fire, but still spent more than $15,300 on grass mowing and snow removal last year.

That's less than half of the $34,630 that was spent mowing grass and cutting brush in 1998.

But taking money from the original pot of $42 million for the relocation effort for mowing grass and brush and plowing snow is about to end, a state official said.

"(The money) was not set aside to maintain grass," said David E. Black, a deputy secretary for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Some of the remaining Centralians said the government has a duty to mow the grass and plow snow on the properties it purchased. And the borough still has an ordinance that says property owners can't let their grass grow higher than 6 inches.

"They should be down here taking care of things," said Lamar Mervine, the borough's 84-year-old mayor.

It still costs about $9,100 a month to run the Centralia relocation project, including rent for a field office in Aristes, insurance and salaries, said William Klink, executive director of the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, which is under contract to oversee the buyouts. The figure does not include maintenance.

"That's a lot of money, considering nothing's happening," Klink said. "It's been expensive."

About $2 million is left in the fund, which came from the Mine Reclamation Fund tax on coal companies, Klink said.

Over the past 15 years, the redevelopment authority has spent at least $500,000 on maintenance in Centralia, Klink said. Much of that cost came from equipment purchased by the authority before mowing and snow removal duties were given to private contractors in the early 1990s.

The effort to voluntarily move residents away from the mine fire started in 1984 and later became mandatory, Klink said. Nobody thought people would still be living in the borough in 2000, he added.

When voluntary relocations began, the redevelopment authority started doing maintenance on the lots it purchased in Centralia. It bought a power mower from Sears and one person cut grass about once a week.

"That was all right for the first year," he said.

As the government acquired bigger pieces of property, the redevelopment authority purchased larger tractors and eventually employed three full-timers and a summer worker to take care of the grass. Two tractors were mowing simultaneously nearly every day, with each lot being cut about once every 10 days.

Grass cutting was sandwiched between other duties for the redevelopment authority workers, such as boarding up homes slated for demolition and pest control.

In 1989 it looked like the government's involvement in Centralia was nearing the end, Klink said. It appeared the folks who wanted to stay would be able to remain without the government declaring eminent domain.

Because the mowing equipment was purchased with federal funds, the government had first chance to acquire the tractors. The state Department of Environmental Protection took the two large tractors and some other equipment, like gas cans.

"They took it all off our hands," he said. "That was done because it looked like the project would end."

But things did not happen that way.

In February 1992, then Gov. Robert Casey ordered the remaining 50 Centralia residents out of their homes. Citizens have fought the eminent domain and condemnation process every step of the way, and about 35 people still live in the borough.

The state decided that mowing and snow removal would continue while residents were relocated and contracts for the maintenance would be put out for bid. Contracts can be renewed each year as long as the rates don't change.

About 60 acres were mowed in 1998, Klink said. Last year only 20 acres of grass were cut.

"I think in the long run contracting (maintenance) out is cheaper than having your own equipment," Klink said.

The winning bids were submitted by D.A. Kessler Construction Co. Inc. for snow removal and by Joe Harvey, now a Hemlock Township supervisor, for brush cutting and mowing.

In 1999, D.A. Kessler billed the authority for $315 in snow removal. The company is paid $45 per hour.

Harvey is paid $20 per hour for mowing and $30 per hour for brush cutting, which is tougher work, Klink said.

Last year, he earned $15,060 from the contract. The year before, he was paid $34,630 for grass cutting and brush removal.

Both contractors use their own equipment and are paid the same rate no matter how many people are on the job, Klink said. If equipment breaks down, the contractors are responsible for its repair.

Snow removal was never a big deal in the borough, Klink said, because there are few sidewalks. However, grass cutting always took more time.

Each fall and early winter, all lots in Centralia are cut with a "brush hog," a machine that can take out small trees and dense growth.

Last May, the state Department of Community and Economic Development told the redevelopment authority to mow once a month only along Center and Locust streets. The state said it wanted only to keep the grass from spreading into the road.

"Under no circumstances is the redevelopment authority required to mow properties where persons occupy, or claim to occupy structures," says the letter from DCED's Black. "The regular mowing of vacant lots in Centralia is to stop immediately."

Harvey said he wished he would have been told before May last year that he wouldn't be mowing all of Centralia, as he had done in the past. He said he bought new equipment for last season and estimates he has $65,000 invested in equipment needed to take care of the borough.

Mowing in Centralia is not like mowing a golf course, Klink said. There are numerous holes and equipment sometimes hit debris like bricks and rocks.

One year Harvey said he destroyed a mower deck when he ran over a piece of railroad iron. The metal broke the half-inch blade made from tempered steel.

"You just have to watch where you mow," he said.

Cutbacks on mowing in Centralia will hurt his bottom line, Harvey said, but added that he has other mowing jobs.

One of the main concerns for the few people living in Centralia is that the grass gets mowed, Harvey said. The government should put money in an escrow account that would allow the grass to be cut indefinitely.

Harvey said he would like to see Centralia turned into a park, adding that he doesn't think the underground fire will burn for too much longer. The wisps of steam are nearing a stripping pit where all the coal has been removed.

Black said he is not worried about the borough's grass-cutting ordinance. The state now owns all the properties, so the ordinance should have no effect.

Citizens can push to have the grass mowed, he said, but it will be a waste of time and cost money for a legal battle.

Harvey said he one of the few things the stayers in Centralia want is to have their borough look nice.

"I think the government should mow around those people's homes," Harvey said. "And I don't say that because I'm the one who does it. But because those people have rights."