Bob Valerio's thoughts were on his country as he waited for a court hearing on whether he would get to keep his business.
“This is not the United States of America that I know,” Valerio lamented. “Does the Constitution mean anything? Obviously, there are no personal property rights.”
For nearly 60 years, Valerio’s family business, Wally and Joe’s Welding, has stood in a squat brick building on a busy highway in McKeesport, Pa. But the government has taken title to his land by eminent domain, forcing Valerio to consider the prospect of closing his doors forever.
“I’m not ready to retire,” says the 64 year-old welder.
Bob has lost his building because the City of McKeesport Sewage Authority used eminent domain to take the property. They say they need the land to expand a sewage pumping station next door. The battle landed in court, pitting Valerio against the government.
“My family has worked at this thing their whole lives, and I’m carrying on the legacy.”
The city of McKeesport originally paid Valerio $57,000 for the building and offered a check for $47,000 for his equipment, some of it specialized and custom-made for the welding process. But Valerio says the amount was not enough to cover his move and keep him in business, and he did not accept the second check.
“I just want it replaced. I’m not looking to make a windfall and retire at Myrtle Beach on a golf course. I just want you to move me to an adequate facility where I can continue.”
They got the deed, they did eminent domain, and if you’re ordered out, you don’t have enough to continue the business,” says Valerio’s business partner, Bob Livingston.
“We had it appraised at a certain value, and he wanted far more than what the appraisal was,” countered Joe Rost, executive sirector of the Muncipal Authority of the City of McKeesport. “When you can’t come to an agreement, then you have to resort to the court, and hope that the courts will determine what is fair and reasonable."
Rost says the small pumping station expansion is part of a federally mandated $54 million expansion of the sewage system needed to clean rain run-off, and that Valerio’s building is the only place where the new facility can be built. He insists that Valerio has been treated fairly in the process.
“We only used eminent domain as a very last resort. None of us would like that to happen to us. We realize that. We put ourselves in their place.”
He says the city has tried to find an alternative location for the business.
“We didn’t want to do it under any stretch of the imagination…but in this case we had no choice. We were running out of time and this project had to be done.”
At a court hearing, a partial settlement was reached that will force Valerio out in 30 days but allow him to try and relocate his business elsewhere. Both sides agreed on a payment of $140,000 to help Valerio purchase a new building, and the final amount to be paid by the city will be decided under arbitration.
“It’s going to get me enough to relocate and remain in business, and that was my main objective,” Valerio told Fox News after the hearing, adding, “I will have to fight for the rest.”
The lawyer for the McKeesport Authority, Cliff Johns, said, “a fair and equitable understanding has been reached for possession of the property,” but the final settlement will still have to be reached.
Pittsburgh Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who represents the district where Valerio lives, said in a written statement that it would have been “a travesty for McKeesport to lose a 60-year-old institution like Wally and Joe’s.” He said government “should be doing everything to help them survive in tough economic times.”
Construction on the sewage pumping station expansion will soon impact the site, and Valerio will lose the building where he has welded since he was 15 years old. But while he endured what he calls “the heartbreaking” experience of eminent domain, he has hope that the agreement means he will remain in business.
“I expected maybe to turn my keys in today," he said.