Paul Wyman

A lot can happen in two years. Except, it seems, when federal funding is attached to a project.

Last week Howard County reached a milestone in blight elimination. The county commissioners awarded a bid of $12,900 to City of First Excavating and Demo to bring down a dilapidated home located at 3315 W. 50 S. The move marks the first instance of the county tapping its $72,000 blight elimination grant funding, which was awarded in 2014.

County officials claim the delay in grant use isn’t for a lack of trying.

Since receiving the funding, the county targeted five individual properties for demolition as part of the federal project. County officials cite a myriad of reasons for the slow process, which revolve around the red tape and restrictions associated with the federal funding, for the other properties falling through.

“It’s an absolute burden to deal with the regulations that come with those dollars,” said Commissioner Paul Wyman. “Oftentimes we’re talking about $10,000 for a teardown, and what you have to go through and the amount of time to justify that $10,000 or $12,000 in the business world would never fly. But in government, sadly, that’s the way the federal government operates.”

And the restrictions are numerous. Ranging from rodent eradication and topsoil specifications to mountains of paperwork, obstacles constantly presented themselves to the county throughout the process. Due to the nature of the program, months of work were even lost when a structure was eventually found to be a historic landmark by the state. Something, according to Howard County Larry Murrell, that would have been discovered much sooner had the county been following normal protocols. These obstacles, said Murrell, simply aren’t present in the county-operated unsafe building program.

“I think what you boil this down to is this program is not meant for tearing down one, two, three, or four houses on a kind of hit-and-miss basis,” said Murrell. “It’s needed, but it’s not geared for that … It’s a typical government operation where they just beat you to death with paperwork.”

Statewide problem

The county isn’t alone in this process. The blight elimination program was announced in 2014 when the U.S. Department of Treasury gave Indiana the ability to allocate $75 million of its $221 million in Hardest Hit Funds to blight elimination. Since then, just $7.5 million has been utilized across the state. When announced, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority estimated 4,000 blighted or abandoned homes would be demolished with the funding.

After multiple extensions of the program’s deadline, which is now 2020, only 590 have been demolished statewide.

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Within Kokomo, the ball started rolling on blight elimination this year. As of now, 62 lots have been demolished by the city. Deputy Mayor David Tharp welcomes the blight elimination program, however, he acknowledged a learning curve comes with the entire process as the city’s demolitions primarily took place this year, after the city received more than $3 million in funding in 2014.

“I would definitely say more progress has come in the last few quarters, mostly because the city and the demolition contractors have a better familiarity with the detailed process and regulations for this,” said Tharp.

The contractors play a central role in the process as they too require extra paperwork in taking down properties as part of blight elimination.

The county, which only received one bid for the property approved for blight elimination, cited a lack of contractor interest due to the extra workload of blight elimination.

“We’re doing one project, and it’s not worth (contractors’) time,” said Murrell. “Under the program we’re only allowed $10,000 to tear the house down. The only bid we got was for $12,000, and we had to file a waiver for that to get their approval to go to the extra $2,000. There is no doubt that extra $2,000 was loaded into there because of all the paperwork they had to push.”

So, it seems, the county’s focus may no longer be on utilizing the federal funding. Rather, it will defer to its unsafe building program. According to Howard County Plan Commission Director Greg Sheline, within the same two-year timeframe the county has demolished about 10 structures using the county program.

“In my opinion, for us, it’s just not worth it,” said Sheline. “It’s too bad because there’s a lot of blighted properties in the county.”

Wyman agreed, adding that if an easy opportunity for blight elimination funding use presented itself the county would pursue the demolition. Otherwise, there are other options.

“We’re not going to spend the time doing the massive amount of paperwork the federal government requires to do it,” said Wyman. “When we just do it through our unsafe building programs and do it at the local level, we don’t have those requirements. It’s done in a much more timely fashion. It’s typical federal beaucracy, and it’s just sad because it wastes tax dollars is what it does.”

Tharp said the city will continue its program, aiming to demo 140 properties.