Is it strange that Erie County is in the house rental business? Only to people who also think it’s odd if the plumber moonlights as a brain surgeon. Which is to say: Yes, it’s strange.
That doesn’t mean the county has to trip over its feet to extricate itself from the landlord business – that could cause its own problems – but it’s not a place where governments should find themselves comfortable.
Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw raised the issue this week in an audit he completed of the 11 residences Erie County owns, each in a park setting. Five of them are dilapidated and considered uninhabitable. Three of the remaining six are occupied by county employees who, Mychajliw says, pay less than market rates in rent, but who also provide some security within the parks.
The habitable properties are 50 to 100 years old. They were acquired by the county more than four decades ago and were used by the county workers who were park caretakers. When those jobs were eliminated, no policy for the homes was put in place.
It’s an uncomfortable setup and, if it weren’t that the houses were already there, few would encourage the county to construct rental properties within public parks. It’s a distraction from the county’s obligations to its residents and an invitation to mismanagement and political chicanery.
Chicanery is the mildest description of the 2010 plan by then-County Executive Chris Collins to rent the house at Wendt Beach to his environment and planning commissioner, Kathy Konst, for $650 a month plus utilities. That was after the county spent $36,000 for repairs to the building. The sweetheart deal caused an outcry and the idea was abandoned.
Still, the county owns the houses and it either needs to maintain them so they can be occupied or watch them deteriorate, as some have, potentially leading to their demolition – at an additional cost for taxpayers.
The options are restricted. For example, the county shouldn’t sell the properties outright as that would create a worse collision of circumstances within these parks. Better for the public to own houses in public parks than for them to be placed in private hands.
What is required is some out-of-the-box thinking on these matters. The county could consider contracting with a property manager to oversee the houses, for example. Then, they could be rented out long-term as they now are, if that offers the best deal to taxpayers, or perhaps they could be rented out for special events.
There are other examples of rentals within public parks, though the occupants tend not to be permanent. Cabins can be rented at Allegany State Park, for example, and privately run campgrounds exist within national parks. There may be some lessons in those arrangements that could apply to the situation in Erie County.
Some of the county houses may have to be demolished, such is their condition.
That’s a shame, but it at least calls an end to the problem of county ownership there. The others should be maintained as the county develops a better strategy for managing and putting to use these relics of a different day.