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Residents: Aggressive code enforcement needed

Residents: Aggressive code enforcement needed

City officials see spike in code enforcement violations

January 13th, 2019 by Nicole Roberts in Local News

Trash not placed in containers or the proper type of containers is one issue with which city code enforcement personnel have to deal on a regular basis.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

Driving down Country Club Drive in August, Jefferson City residents Gerald Ross and Rob Dallmeyer III pointed out homes they believe violated the city's code enforcement ordinances — homes with tall weeds, piles of wood and other items in their yards.

Over the last several months, they said, they have continued to see nuisance violations, sometimes repeated at certain homes, despite having spoken with city officials several times.

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Even though city staff issued a record number of code violations last fiscal year, some residents believe code enforcers are not being aggressive enough to combat nuisances.

During the 2018 fiscal year — Nov. 1, 2017, to Oct. 31, 2018 — Jefferson City code enforcers issued 4,424 violations, according to city data. The No. 1 violation was for tall weeds and accumulation of brush, which made up nearly a third of the violations.

There are many more violations throughout the city that code enforcers are not addressing, though, Ross and Dallmeyer said.

Holding up a highlighted copy of the code enforcement section of the city code in December, Dallmeyer said there are properties in Jefferson City he believes violated the code, but when Ross and Dallmeyer spoke to city staff, they were told the properties were in compliance. He referenced several properties including ones in the 3000-3200 blocks of Country Club Drive, 3200 block of South Ten Mile Drive, 3100 block of Hogan Drive, 600 block of Conrad Street and 900 block of Jefferson Street.

"We've had numerous conversations with city staff, city administrator, and they're like, 'What would you like us to do?'" Dallmeyer said in December. "Enforce the code. Those that are in violation, you have to deal with them."

Under Chapter 21 of the city code, a nuisance is an unlawful act or an omitted duty that:

Injures or endangers the comfort, health or safety of people;

Offends decency;

Is offensive to the senses;

Renders people insecure when using property or in life;

Depreciates the other people's property values or interferes with a person's comfortable enjoyment of life and property;

Unlawfully interferes with, obstructs or renders dangerous for passage of any public or private street, sidewalk, highway, stream, ditch or drainage; or

Violates Jefferson City's Property Maintenance Code.

Nuisances can include tall weeds, trash accumulation, junked motor vehicles and indoor-use-only furniture being used outside, among several other items.

However, clutter in a front yard is not always a code violation, Helmick said.

"A lot of people who call in concerns, they don't like it or it's different, and they want us to take care of complaints because they don't like the way something looks," he said. "We're bound by what is in code, and what's in code is actual issues, maintenance issues, things that are life safety issues. Not liking the color of somebody's house or they have too many kids' toys outside, those are not violations."

When a property owner receives a nuisance violation, he or she has 10 days to correct the violation. If a property maintenance issue is not an immediate nuisance or would take more time to be considered a reasonable fix — such as fixing a roof — the property owner has 30 days to comply.

If the violations are corrected during the set period, the case is closed. If they are not, the city can proceed with the abatement process, issue summons or hold administrative hearings.

Of the 4,424 cases, the city closed 95 percent of the violations in the 2018 fiscal year, with 96 percent of residents voluntarily correcting code violations, city data notes.

While the city has a high voluntary compliance rate, Helmick said previously, it does have issues with repeat offenders.

"(City staff) tell us one of their problems is when they go out there and (the property owner) cleans it up and then they trash it again and (code enforcers) go back," Ross said. "The attitude tends to be, 'Well, we'll err on the side of letting this person working through it.' They're not aggressive on code enforcement."

There needs to be a stronger ordinance in place to deter repeat offenders, Ross and Dallmeyer said. They referenced a home in the 3200 block of Country Club Drive, adding it has been abandoned for about 15 years and has had numerous repeat code enforcement violations.

Jefferson City has a section of the city code that addresses habitual offenders. A habitual offender is a person who has been ordered to abate a code violation after an administrative hearing or has been convicted in municipal court of a Chapter 21 code violation at least three times in the last 365 days or five times in any 730-day period.

A person found guilty of violating the habitual offenders section can be punished by a fine of no less than $350 and no less than 30 days in jail, according to the city code.

If someone receives a nuisance violation and voluntarily addresses the issue but repeats this cycle multiple times without having an administrative hearing or being convicted in municipal court, then the property owner would not be considered a habitual offender, Helmick said.

Under city code, when a property owner receives a nuisance violation and fixes it, the city closes that case. Then, if the same property has a nuisance violation again, code enforcers must treat it as a new case as required by state law, Helmick said.

"If they're complying and doing it, and we don't have to abate it or summons them to court, there isn't a limit on how many violations they can have in a year," he said. "But if we have to summons them to court and they get convicted on the different violations, then there are increased penalties. But our goal is not that. Our goal is to get voluntary compliance because it does cost a lot of resources, time and money to have court cases and issue summons and go through that."

This route does not encourage repeat offenders to clean up their properties and keep them clean though, Ross and Dallmeyer said.

Ross suggested increasing the fine when someone repeats a code violation and eventually putting a lien against the property if the property owner repeats code violations too many times. By increasing the fines with each violation, he added, that would give the city's property maintenance chapter "some teeth" and allow code enforcers to address other properties instead of going back to the same handful of properties.

The repeat issues normally are associated with properties, not people, Helmick said.

"We could educate the tenants that live (in a rental property), but if in three months a new group moves in, we're going to have to educate all over again," he said. "So there are a lot of properties in the city that have repeat offenders where they have violations more than once but it's not necessarily the same people. Most of our repeat offenders are rental properties."

Code violations have continued to increase over the last couple of years — 3,217 violations in the 2017 fiscal year and 1,667 in the 2016 fiscal year, city data notes. Ross and Dallmeyer said this is worrisome.

"The sad thing is it's everywhere now," Dallmeyer said. "It used to not be everywhere. It's mushroomed."

The increase in violations doesn't necessarily mean residents are creating more nuisances, Helmick said. The city streamlined the code enforcement process a few years ago and code enforcers have been more proactive, he added. Instead of looking at one property in a neighborhood, code enforcers are looking at surrounding properties while in an area.

There is always room for improvement, though, said Sonny Sanders, director of Jefferson City Planning and Protective Services. The department has rolled out a couple of improvements to "give us more teeth," he said.

They plan to be more proactive since the city's new code enforcement software debuted last month, Helmick said. The software allows code enforcers to work more in the field and residents to file code enforcement complaints online. Code enforcers can reply to those complaints and provide information regarding why properties were either found to have a code violation or not.

Residents can visit the portal at ci-jefferson-mo.smartgovcommunity.com/Public/Home.

The city also is doing new landlord registration, where landlords must provide information like telephone numbers, mailing addresses, birth dates and their residential properties' addresses. The deadline for landlord registration is Jan. 31.

If landlords do not register by that deadline, the city will send the unregistered landlords a letter, giving them 10 days to register. If the landlords to not register within that 10-day time frame, they will receive a summons to municipal court.

Even with those improvements, Sanders said, code violations have been occurring for years and "it's not going to be addressed overnight."

Both parties could agreed on one thing, though — code violations detract from Jefferson City.

"It's an embarrassment," Dallmeyer said. "It's an impairment to the neighborhoods, and it's spite to the neighbors who try to do the right thing and be good stewards of their properties."