A growing problem

WARREN – The grass is always shorter in someone else’s neighborhood, but the city’s health and service departments, along with the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office and the County Land Bank, are working to level the fields at vacant and foreclosed properties in the city.

“We got to 36 properties today. I didn’t even load up the trailer, just move the van down the road,” sheriff’s Deputy Rick Manofsky said Monday.

Manofsky leads a crew of inmates from the Trumbull County Jail who participate in the county’s grass-cutting program. Prisoners who are approved by a judge spend summer days running mowers and weed trimmers at overgrown, privately owned properties that are vacant, foreclosed or deemed by the Health Department as a nuisance.

On a good day, Manofsky has four inmates and working equipment; on a bad day, he’ll have one inmate and a few working mowers. Getting a full crew can be difficult since inmates are needed for jobs within the jail, such as in the laundry, before they are offered for the cutting program.

While the program has several mowers, with extensive daily wear and tear, keeping them running is a challenge. Manofsky has only one of three brushhogs in working condition, making tacking severely unkept lawns difficult.

“Someone would ask, ‘Why are you down?’ and I’d say, ‘I can’t get my job done,”’ Manofsky said. “Well, I have a new attitude this year – we can only do what we can do.”

This year Manofsky and the crew just rounded off about 400 yards. Last year at the same time they were around 700; the year’s wet spring was not conducive for mowing.

Last year, Manofsky topped 1,900 yards at a cost to the city of about $10,000 – about $5.25 for each yard. This year, the city budgeted a similar amount.

The city response

For city officials, the inmate program is cost-effective and “out-of-the-box” thinking, though they recognize it may not provide as quick a response as using a contractor. It was created by Sheriff Thomas Altiere in 2007 and funded by a $10,000 grant from Trumbull 100.

Warren Safety Service Director Enzo Cantalamessa and Department of Health Commissioner Robert Pinti said for the city the overgrown yards are a matter of health and safety.

Keeping the grass at reasonable heights is important, but being able to cut it as often as one would their own yard is not feasible for the city. This is why it is important for neighbors to enter the equation and take over after Manofsky’s crew has come through with brushhogs and larger equipment, he said.

“Given that it’s private property, it becomes more critical for neighbors and neighborhood associations to, once we get the grass down, to try and take ownership,” Cantalamessa said.

Pinti said when the house next to his was empty, he mowed the lawn there, so he can empathize with residents who have to live next to unkempt homes.

Manofsky said Pinti even pitched in $3,000 for a new brushhog for the program.

When residents are able to help with the upkeep of vacancies, Cantalamessa said many are more likely to add the property as a side lot through the Trumbull County Land Bank if the house on the property is demolished. The city typically isn’t able to recovery money spent on grass cuttings since liens on the property for the trimmings are forgiven once the property makes its way into the land bank.

“On the flip side, if we can get it to the land bank, the city is willing to make that sacrifice,” said Cantalamessa.

The land bank has allowed the city to find new life for the properties, but Manofsky said the neighbors picking up the slack is a rare occurrence.

‘He died and that’s it’

For 89-year-old Rena Panak, taking care of the abandoned house next to hers on Northwest Boulevard is not possible. Up until her son Joseph S. Panak passed away in November from pancreatic cancer, Joseph had been mowing the front and back yards at 2165 Northwest Blvd., which was vacated about four years ago.

“He died and that’s it,” she said.

Joseph had also repaired the 6-foot-tall fence surrounding the home’s backyard. Now it is bowing and full of waist-deep weeds. One scrawny maple tree in the corner of the property just inches from the dilapidated house is about 9 feet tall. Mice from the field have found there way into Rena’s home.

“This is just uncalled for. She’s almost 90 years old,” said Rena’s daughter Joey Archuleta, who is in town from New Mexico as her mother recovers from a fall. ”She can’t put down mouse traps. She pays her taxes and for lawn care. The city of Warren definitely needs to do something about this.”

Rena said she and her daughters have called the Health Department and other city departments without any luck. Now she said she and her other daughter, Anna Jones, whose property abuts the abandoned plot, have hired lawn maintenance to mow their own yards while a neighbor they only know as Angel has taken to mowing the front yard of 2165 Northwest Blvd.

“What’s really offensive to me is them saying the neighbors should take care of it. … They need to know the whole situation,” Joey said.

As more vacant homes are demolished through state grants, the problem is only growing – Manofsky struggles to keep on top of the lawns he has; the city tackles a dwindling budget and residents become exhausted coping with the overgrown yards.

“I can see how it’s frustrating. It’s cyclical. It repeats and it’s the same complaints,” Cantalamessa said. “As citizens of the city, civic pride starts at home.”

Nevertheless Cantalamessa and Pinti maintain that the land bank has put “an end in sight” for the cycle.