The municipal court should have more room to be involved in addressing uncared-for properties in Jefferson City, both candidates seeking the job of judge on the April 6 ballot say.
Candidates Scott Evans and Angela Silvey suggested the involvement ranged from additional punishment options to being involved earlier in the process.
A small number of code enforcement cases currently goes to the Jefferson City municipal court.
According to property maintenance activity documents, the Department of Planning and Protective Services issued 18 court summons from Nov. 1, 2019, to Oct. 31, 2020. Since then, they've issued three.
Meanwhile, they issued 6,011 code violations in 2020 and 5,323 in 2019. Both years had a nearly 97 percent voluntary compliance rate, where the owner or resident addressed the issue before it went further.
"We're talking about a very, very low percentage," inspector Dave Helmick said.
That 3 percent either gets abated, where the city fixes the issue and adds the cost to the owner's tax bill, or it goes to the municipal court if the issue is not something the city would fix.
"Those are going to be your outdoor storage violations, your failure to register as a landlord, things that can't be fixed by a contractor," Helmick said. "The difference between an accumulation of trash and an outdoor storage is outdoor storage is something that has perceived value.
"So if you've got a bunch of auto parts out in your yard and they have a perceived value, we're not going to just take them and throw them away. Our only option to correct that is to give you a summons to appear at municipal court."
The court also handles habitual offenders, which means the owner of a property that has had three abated violations in one year or five in two years.
More options proposed
Changes in the operation and authority of the municipal court would require input from the City Council and city staff.
"What I would like to do is work with the city and say, 'Is there something more you need from the municipal court to enforce these?'" Silvey said. "If there is, then let's figure out what that is and let's get it done."
Silvey said she'd like to work with the city's Planning and Protective Services to give them "a little more teeth."
Under the current process, the court can issue a fee if somebody comes in for a code enforcement issue, but that is the only available punishment.
"I think if people aren't paying those fees, then yes, that's something that needs looked at," Silvey said. "Whether that is some kind of misdemeanor charge or we refer those cases up to the county and the county can then go after them for a misdemeanor or we give them a hearing and allow them to come tell us why we shouldn't remove the property from their possession."
Silvey said, for some instances where landowners have had three or four years to rectify a situation, she would support using eminent domain.
Evans agreed he would support using eminent domain as a last resort but said he "would not envision it getting to that point."
He also suggested adding punitive charges.
"I think there should be more than just it $50 cost to do this, that's what your bill is," Evans said. "There needs to be some sort of punitive aspect to it, and it needs to start earlier in the process, and they need to be made aware of it."
The judge can always sentence somebody who appears before them to a fine, city prosecutor Gaylin Carver said.
The other main part of Evans' proposal is for the court to get involved earlier in the code enforcement process, such as before a property is abated.
He suggested using a show cause order, which would require the owner to show up in court and explain why something isn't done or do it.
"If they're issued a show cause to personally appear in Jefferson City and they live in St. Louis and they're able to make a phone call to get somebody to go cut the grass or manage the property or whatever, that'll get the job done," he said.
Evans said, if a landowner receives these on multiple properties or aren't dealing with an issue until they get one repeatedly, the court could issue one that doesn't allow them to fix the issue to avoid appearing in court.
Silvey said a large part of the issue comes down to enforcing. For example, landowners who build up fines from the city that are never paid or properties that should be on the dangerous building list that aren't.
"Maybe it's a matter of just enforcement needs to really crack the whip on some people and be harsher with the punishment if they've been given chance after chance after chance to fix the situation," Silvey said. "I'm not saying first time someone has a problem but if the city continues to have to go out and mow the grass or board up your buildings."
One of the issues, Helmick said, is repeat offenders and the same people needing to appear in court repeatedly.
"I think that comes back to maybe changing the punishment," Silvey said. "Because if you fine someone and they don't have any way to (pay), they don't have a job, so you can't garnish them. If you're not going to take their property, then how else are you going to get the money for what they owe you? If they don't file taxes, then you can't take their tax returns so then they basically owe you money, and you have no way to collect it."
Silvey said she would hope a harsher punishment would also encourage some of these property owners to sell it to somebody who would take care of the property.
Evans said repeat offenders should face differing punishments and it comes back to having those options.
"I think the reason that you're seeing them come back so frequently is because of the lack of options the court has," he said. "If we can start making these people understand and making them realize that there are consequences to their ignorance of their properties, I think that it will address the situation.
"I believe in giving people second chances and trying to help address the situation, which may have brought him to the court, but when you are just constantly ignorant to any sort of help and you don't seem to have any desire to address the situation, I don't have much patience for that," he said.