- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

MONESSEN, Pa. (AP) - The single-pane windows that line two walls of Monessen Mayor Lou Mavrakis’ office in City Hall rattled loudly enough that he thought they would fall out of their frames the first time he heard a coal train pass by the building.

“I dove under my desk,” Mavrakis, 78, said last month, drawing attention to the poor condition of the former Mon Valley Community Health Center and the city government’s lack of money to repair the building it calls home.

The former steel town is nearly $13.5 million in debt, according to the mayor, and it asked for state help to right its finances to avoid becoming a distressed municipality under Pennsylvania Act 47.

Mavrakis said there are as many as 300 houses and buildings in Monessen that are on the city’s blight list, and the third-class city in the Mon Valley has limited money to demolish them.

“There is no light at the end of the tunnel,” Mavrakis said while driving around the city on roads that are crumbling to the point where some of them are impassable.



“It’s a war zone,” said Mavrakis, who took office two years ago.

Monessen’s 2016 budget shows the city ending the year with a $200,000 deficit. Mavrakis said he believes the budget overestimates revenues, and the deficit will grow even higher by the end of the year.

Councilwoman Lucille D’Alfonso, who chairs the city’s Accounts and Finance Department, said she believes the debt is less than $13.5 million, but she could not provide an estimate of it last week.

She said the consultant in the state’s early intervention program is about to “kick off” the financial review of Monessen, and it will involve analyzing the city’s budget. The process will streamline the business office and look for additional money the city could be eligible to receive, she said.

“We are nowhere near declaring Act 47,” D’Alfonso said.

Monessen’s financial problems, she said, stem from the city having taken out $7 million in bond issues during the previous administration, money that was used to construct a new public safety building, modernize the library, repair 17 roads and make City Park improvements. The debt service on the bonds is due within 28 years.

“We made an investment in our town. There were plans to bring in revenue sooner than expected,” D’Alfonso said.

Monessen borrowed a $500,000 tax-anticipation loan this year, and it made a $125,000 payment to that debt. The city also will pay $466,000 this year to reduce the debt on the bonds.

While the budget includes no money for road projects, council did authorize the city Monday to use a federal grant to repair some of the worst roads, including Chestnut Street, which is littered with blight.

D’Alfonso also said the city is planning to create a list of blighted buildings to be demolished, drawing money from the same Community Development Block Grant program.

“A lot of them were just abandoned,” she said.

Monessen once had a population of more than 25,000 people, and Pittsburgh Steel employed more than 10,000 men there until 1950, when it began to eliminate some production lines, according to the 2014 book “Hidden History of the Laurel Highlands,” by Cassandra Vivian.

The steel forged in Monessen went into countless Chrysler vehicles, and wire made at Page’s Wire & Fence was used to create the cables supporting the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Vivian wrote in her book.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated Monessen’s population declined to 7,529 in July 2014, a number that worries Mavrakis, who wonders where the city is going to find new revenue. The real estate taxes cannot be raised any higher without a court order.

Mavrakis, who is in the minority on council and tends to spar with the majority, said he believes the city is headed straight to Act 47.

The offices in City Hall are largely vacant and in unkempt order. The building needs 235 new wall-mounted heating units that cost $4,680 apiece to install, Mavrakis said. Most of the old ones have been cannibalized to bring heat to occupied rooms, he said.

“There’s nothing left to rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

Mavrakis said only one of three hot-water tanks works in City Hall, and its boiler is 15 years beyond its estimated lifespan. He said the building also needs a new sump pump and boilers, with the cost for all repairs having been estimated at $800,000 or more. The city spends more money every year on the building than what rental income brings in, resulting in a loss of more than $200,000 in the past two years, he said.

Mavrakis said he found an investor with a proven track record who wanted to purchase the building from the city for $265,000 and then invest $3.5 million in it, but council voted against the plan.

D’Alfonso said the selling price would not provide enough of a profit for the city to consider the sale.

“That doesn’t make sense to me to lose an asset like that,” she said.

Mavrakis again Monday urged council to sell City Hall.

“The mistakes they’ve made cost this town hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.

He said each time in the past when the city demolished 10 houses, another 20 of them were added to the demolition rolls.

“Blight creeps,” he said. “Who is going to come in and invest money in a town with all of that blight? We have more blighted houses than all of the third-class cities in Westmoreland County.”

A lifelong resident of Monessen, Mavrakis said he doesn’t know how he will tell the residents the city can’t repair the streets with sinking storm drains.

“The very communities that built this country are suffering the worst,” he said.

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Online:

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Information from: Observer-Reporter, https://www.observer-reporter.com

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