Jeannette officials working to obtain Monsour property
September 26, 2013 9:30 AM
Long vacant and abandoned, the former Monsour Medical Center has been the site of fires and break-ins. The Westmoreland County Tax Claim Bureau will petition to have a county judicial sale of the former hospital property.
By Debra Duncan
Westmoreland County and Jeannette officials are moving ahead with a plan to obtain the former Monsour Medical Center property in Jeannette.
"Someone needs to take a leadership role on this and the county and the city of Jeannette will do it," said Jason Rigone, executive director of the county Industrial Development Corporation.
The Westmoreland County Tax Claim Bureau will petition to have a county judicial sale of the former hospital property, after no one bid on it at the county's annual delinquent property sale Sept. 9.
The county and the city hope to obtain rights to the property at that judicial sale, which is not expected to take place until next year.
But cleaning up the property will be expensive -- a county study found that it may cost $1 million to remove asbestos and demolish the building.
Mr. Rigone said the development group is working with the state to see if there are funds for about half the cost of the cleanup.
"The other half will probably come from the county's community development block grant money, and the city will help with coordination."
The Monsour property, marked by the distinctive round, nine-floor hospital tower along Route 30, has been vacant for years. The hospital was forced to close in 2006, and the board of the medical center, which owns the facility, hasn't met in years.
Since then, fires have been set in the building, and it has been broken into numerous times.
The hospital was opened in the 1950s and operated by four Monsour brothers who were doctors. But the hospital's bankruptcy and selling of its debt to another family corporation have complicated the question of who is responsible for the dilapidated property.
Jeannette solicitor Scott Avolio said he has been in discussions over the years with Westmoreland Priority LLC, which is run by the Monsour family, about cleanup of the property, but with no success.
County and Jeannette officials were not surprised that the delinquent property tax sale produced no bidders.
At the annual delinquent tax sale, bidders must pay all back taxes owed on the hospital property. According to the tax claim bureau, more than $1.1 million is owed to a variety of taxing bodies and governments. That includes tax money to the school district, the city and county, as well as to the IRS and the state.
But at a judicial sale, also called a free and clear sale, the minimum price would not include taxes owed, but would only be the cost of research and notice to lien holders by the bureau.
"That would probably be a few thousand dollars," said Tim Andrews, solicitor for the tax claim bureau.
But before a judicial sale, the tax claim bureau must serve notice to all creditors and lien holders.
"It's my understanding that it may be difficult to find all the board members that owned the facility," he said. "I don't think the board has met for quite some time and some of the board members are no longer here. In that case, we ask the court if we can advertise the sale."
Mr. Andrews said it could take a couple months for the bureau to serve notice to all lien holders because of the number of people involved, and to research corporations that may have bought out other corporations.
"Sometimes that involves going to Harrisburg to research titles and lien holders," he said.
Mr. Andrews said Westmoreland Common Pleas Judge Anthony Marsili handles all tax claim bureau petitions, and a hearing will be held first before a judicial sale date will be set. At that hearing, creditors will be given a chance to be heard.
Jeannette and county officials have been trying to get the abandoned building restored or torn down for several years.
But holding someone responsible has been a major undertaking, according to Mr. Avolio, solicitor for Jeannette.
"In 2010, when I first started working on this, we moved to remove the hospital as a tax-exempt property," he said. "And that got it back on the tax rolls and got us to the delinquent tax sale.
"We also wanted Westmoreland Priority, which holds the hospital debt, to turn over the bonds to the city, so we could foreclose and force them into involuntary bankruptcy and take control of the property," he said.
"But now the judicial sale seems like it might happen more quickly."
Mr. Avolio said there is some risk to owning the property.
"If you take it over, you're responsible for the asbestos and the horribly dangerous condition of the building," he said. "But the city and county are working together to minimize that risk."
"It's a glimmer of hope that something is going to happen," he said.
"The six acres is very prime property for the city. Located along Route 30, at a red light, and with DeLallo's [Italian food store] right across the road, it's our only property along Route 30 that is ripe for commercial development," he said.
Mr. Avolio said the county study estimated it would cost $650,000 to demolish the building and about $350,000 for asbestos removal.
Mr. Rigone said most of the asbestos is in textured ceiling tiles and there is also black mold throughout much of the building.
In addition, he said, the new property owner will have to take responsibility for the medical records that are still in the building.
"Someone has to destroy those records properly," he said of the files.