WILKES-BARRE — At some point, George Buckley’s faith in City Hall turned to frustration.
The retired teacher said he and his wife, Teresa, alerted the city’s code enforcement office numerous times about violations and nothing was done.
They started in 2009 with information about a building they said was being converted into apartments next door to their house on East South Street.
They continued this year with information about the house on the opposite side that they said was illegally rented and even provided a copy of the lease the tenant gave them.
Instead of being welcomed, they said they were insulted by rental inspector Joann Semenza, who told them to sell the house they’ve owned for 38 years to their new neighbors and move.
“Every time I tell people that, they can’t believe it happened,” Buckley said.
The comment spurred Buckley to look into rental properties Semenza and her husband, Phillip, own in the city. What Buckley found out infuriated him.
Records from Northeast Revenue Service LLC, the tax claim operator for Luzerne County, showed that as of Friday the Semenzas, who live in Yatesville, owe $1,995 in back taxes for 2012 for a property on North Washington Street. Phillip Semenza owes $2,280 for a property he owns on Horton Street.
The city responded by letter to his July 29 Right-to-Know request for copies of the original rental licenses and renewals for the properties. It read, “Please be advised that the city of Wilkes-Barre has no documents responsive to your request.”
Two phone calls and e-mail sent to Joann Semenza were not returned. City spokeswoman Liza Prokop said Semenza declined an interview.
When asked about the delinquent taxes, Prokop said in an e-mail: “The city does not comment on the tax status of any property owner.”
Buckley faulted the city for failing to enforce its laws.
“I don’t really blame those people. You’ll do as much as you can get away with,” he said of the landlords who skirt the ordinances on rental properties. “I blame city hall. They say, ‘We rely on you.’ You tell them what’s happening for two years and they make a fool out of you.”
Fastidious, organized and diligent, Buckley, 68, has kept copies of e-mails, documents and paperwork of the dealings he and his wife have had with city hall. They haven’t been satisfied with the answers, he said, and did their own work to support their case of inaction by the city.
“The stuff they say is ridiculous. They think they’re talking to dummies,” Buckley said. “I’ll tell you right now they do wear you down, because I’m worn down. It’s just that it’s going on and on and on and on.”
The Buckleys’ house at 339 E. South St. is the second one from the intersection with South Sherman Street. When the house closest to South Sherman Street was sold and the new owner began making it into apartments Buckley wanted to know whether building permits were issued.
He said he and his wife were awakened one September morning in 2011 to four gunshots fired outside one of the apartments at 343 E. South St.
A request to add a third apartment was denied by the city’s zoning hearing board last year, but the apartment was already occupied and the city would not close the unit, he said. Despite not having issued permits for converting the building to apartments, the city issued a rental license last year, he added.
“It’s very quiet now and I’ll guarantee you it wouldn’t be quiet if I didn’t start something back in 2011 or 2012 when I got mad,” Buckley said.
The single-family house at 335 E. South St. was sold in June 2012, and a month later, Buckley said, he notified the city’s code enforcement office that it was being rented. The city said it would look into it and determined it was occupied by the owner and no fine would be issued because no rental license was necessary, he said.
But almost a year later, Buckley said, he obtained a copy of the lease from the tenants signed on July 23, 2012, and a letter dated May 6 of this year stating that they had to be out of the house by July 1 when the owner was moving in. No fine has been issued for lack of a rental license, he said.
Buckley said there are probably others who feel like him after dealing with City Hall. He said he doesn’t consider himself a troublemaker and still is awaiting answers from city officials.
“What am I going to do stop?” he asked. “Their philosophy is you’ll go away.”