Ill. city pushes vacant house demolitions after 20th arson

Decatur fire officials said the most recent fire highlights an ongoing problem caused by a surplus of vacant and abandoned properties

By Scott Perry

Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill.

DECATUR — Decatur fire officials are asking anyone with information about a suspected arson overnight Wednesday to contact them.

The fire highlights what officials have said is an ongoing problem caused by a surplus of vacant and abandoned properties, which city leaders are moving to address with stepped-up demolition efforts.

Decatur Fire Chief Jeff Abbott said Thursday he had no doubt this latest empty house fire was set deliberately, the 20th such fire dealt with by his department so far this year.

The call sending firefighters to 509 E. Center St., a few houses down from North Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, was received at 11:02 p.m. Wednesday and crews worked to prevent flames from spreading to a neighboring home.

After dousing what remained of the two-story structure with water, crews cleared the scene around 3 a.m. Firefighters returned later Thursday to inspect the scene in the daylight.

Deputy Fire Chief Rich Pruitt said arson is suspected, since the home was vacant and was without gas and electricity service. This is the second time this year firefighters were called to the home, Pruitt said. The first time was Sept. 12.

FBI crime stats for Decatur recorded 30 arson fires for the city in 2017, which was an 87 percent jump over the 16 arsons recorded for 2016.

Abbott has said previously he wants to see the number of abandoned and deteriorated homes reduced in the city, and has heard estimates suggesting there may be hundreds of them out there.

"You can't go from a city of 95,000 to 72,000 and not have vacant properties," he said, citing the recorded decline in Decatur's population in recent decades.

The Decatur City Council this year began shaping a sweeping neighborhood revitalization plan with public input, and demolition of vacant structures had been among the most-stressed priorities.

Abbott noted that the council is eager to address the issue of abandoned homes and he noted new efforts under the guidance of Interim City Manager Billy Tyus as showing some results.

In an email statement, Tyus said there is around $1 million budgeted for demolitions and a new round of those demolitions got rolling this week, with the promise of many more to come.

"There is a council item on the agenda Monday that, if approved, would mean that in 2018 there would be 29 houses either demolished, out to be bid to be demolished or that will be bid soon," he said. "The goal is to have 47 (set for demolition) by February 2019, barring any issues."

Tyus said that was compared to just a handful of abandoned properties tackled over much of the last year or so due to "limited funding."

Part of the new surge in demolitions reflects a partnership with the Operating Engineers Local 965 union which Tyus said is already busy flattening six properties. In a new symbiotic partnership, Tyus said the demolitions act a as a training exercise for the union while saving the city on demolition costs.

"We have also recently received bids and are awarding contracts for demolition of another nine properties with bids for another 12 to be issued this month," he added.

Tyus said the pace should pick up more momentum into 2019 as the city taps that cash reserve of close to $1 million budgeted for demolitions stretching over the next 12 months. "This is significantly more than what has been available in recent years," he added.

Tyus said the city is under no illusions, however, about the size of the abandoned home problem it faces and the need to dredge up even more cash to deal with it.

He said getting rid of unwanted homes was now set as one of the city's "priority" issues.

"...We know that we will need to identify additional funding in the next year as the number of houses that will need to be demolished going forward will cost more than what is currently available," he said. "We know that recent demolitions are only a start to addressing the problem."


(c)2018 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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