Improving Code Enforcement in Tucson
A Town Hall was jointly sponsored by the Neighborhood Support Network (NSN) and Tucson Residents for Responsive Government (TRRG). The event was held from 1- 4 PM on Saturday, November 15, 2014 at the Ward 6 council office. Forty eight people signed in. Twenty two neighborhoods were represented. Seven City of Tucson staff members attended.
Donald Ijams, of NSN, and Ruth Beeker, of TRRG, were facilitators of the event and introduced the meeting agenda and speakers. Don addressed the agenda and described the other items on the handout that provided attendees with information about Code Enforcement and how complaints are handled. Ruth introduced the five essentials of good government from TRRG’s purpose statement and thanked two TRRG members, Lois Pawlak and Kris Yarter, who took on this workshop issue so that neighbors and city staff could find ways to work together to prevent urban blight and get our codes enforced in a more meaningful manner.
Michael Wyneken, Interim Administrator of Code Enforcement, and Rick Saldate, Code Enforcement Supervisor, were introduced. Michael explained the history of the City of Tucson’s Code Enforcement Division (located in the Planning and Development Services Department). He talked about recent staffing challenges the department has faced and how that has affected the Division’s ability to respond to complaints and do the follow-up work necessary to achieve compliance.
Since April of this year, there has been a 50% turnover in administrative staff, a 75% turnover in inspectors, and a 20% turnover in customer service representatives, while at the same time, the number of complaints looks to be heading for a record year. Michael explained the enforcement process from the start when a complaint is filed until the point when the violation is resolved. He took questions from the attendees.
Ronnie Kotwica, from the Palo Verde Neighborhood, gave a presentation about an ongoing code enforcement problem with one particular property in her neighborhood that has been occurring for over 15 years, without a permanent resolution. The situation had examples of many types of code violations, and many examples of how the system of code enforcement has failed to alleviate the blight from this property. The case also highlighted the role that neighbors can play in helping to get properties cleaned up and property owners held responsible for their properties. The inadequacies of the current system were discussed by attendees and suggestions were given about how to make it more effective. Michael Rankin, City Attorney, was on hand to answer questions about the legal aspects of code enforcement and property rights.
Lois Pawlak, from the Garden District Neighborhood, talked about and showed examples of some of the code enforcement issues her neighborhood is dealing with: junked cars, graffiti, excessive weeds, dumping, abandoned and neglected properties.
A discussion took place about the issues with the current system of enforcement. Some of the problems that were expressed dealt with the “complaint driven” enforcement process (rather than proactive sweeps), the issue of enforcement when problem property owners live out of the state, fear of retaliation and lack of adequate legal tools to remediate problems in a timely manner.
After a short intermission, Joan Hall, of the NSN Core Croup, led attendees in an open discussion of suggestions and ideas for how to move code enforcement to a level where it is more effective at improving the quality of life in our neighborhoods. Many ideas were expressed. The following is a list of some of them.
- Economic adversity may be the reason some properties are abandoned or neglected
- The community needs to find ways to help socially, economically and physically disadvantaged citizens who cannot maintain their properties on their own
- Some neighborhood associations send a friendly postcard to residents if a code violation occurs. This early reminder might secure compliance in some cases thus reducing Code Enforcement workload. * Example * (We’d love to get more examples- send them to me.)
- Encourage more neighborhood block watch groups to expand their focus, where problems can be addressed collectively instead of individually
- Ask an elected person (mayor or council member) to come out and perform code enforcement inspections, bringing publicity to the problem of maintaining properties
- Use neighborhood roll-offs (now more easily available) as a way for residents to get rid of trash
- Do a door-hanging in the neighborhood with information about neighborhood services and other information that residents should know
- Ask the University to publish a handbook for students on how to be good neighbors
- Find better ways to communicate with each other
- Make more liaisons with city departments
- Get involved in setting policy
- The City should do a public relations campaign about property upkeep and benefits to all of us
- Change the complaint-driven enforcement process to a proactive one, linked to Brush and Bulky pickups, rolloffs and neighborhood assistance to the infirm and disabled
- Neighbors should join with city employees to do volunteer clean-ups
- Enforce existing ordinances, or create new ones, to do a better job of getting chronic problem property owners to take responsibility for their properties
- Identify local fiduciary agents of out of town landlords and call them with violations
- Educate property owners (send them a letter) about their property management responsibilities
- Bring local property managers (who are responsible for many rental properties) into the process
- Find ways to get more rapid response when a code violation (dumping, graffiti, etc.) is reported as “in progress”
The next topic on the agenda was how to improve the process in the short term considering that there are about 13,000 complaints per year and only 13 inspectors now working (16 when Code Enforcement is fully staffed, with one over hire likely for a total of 17). There were 25 Code Inspectors positions in the 2008 budget.
Michael Wyneken explained that the Code Enforcement Division (CED) is doing several things to improve the enforcement process:
- The Division is expecting to be included in an upcoming study of the Planning and Development Services Department’s information technology needs in preparation for a new computer system, and looking for new technology that will bring efficiencies to the code enforcement process.
- Complete the current hiring process to obtain and train the Division’s full complement of Customer Service and Inspection employees.
- Analyze time lags and other process aspects that may be slowing enforcement outcomes.
- Code Enforcement personnel will move to the City-County Public Works building soon which will make it much easier to communicate and work with related functions that interact with them daily.
- Start a postcard notification system for complaints such as weeds and debris, that will notify the resident of the complaint and the intent to send an inspector.
Long term steps to better Code Enforcement were discussed with Michael Rankin. He addressed chronic problems (like the one Ronnie Kowica discussed earlier) and whether a time-frame for compliance could be instituted before more serious action is taken. He talked about changing the process for handling the worst cases, possibly increasing the priority of enforcement related property liens and possibly moving violations to a “nuisance” category in order to make prosecution easier. He said that forcing a change in ownership is a difficult process even for properties in gross violation of the codes.
Mr. Rankin also said that the City is not likely to deputize citizens because of training and liability issues involved with temporary or volunteer workers. However, there might be a way to use photographs taken by citizens to document a problem (as is possible on the graffiti report website) and its abatement as a way to speed up the process and reduce the number of on-site inspections needed in each case. Michael Wyneken also suggested calling in complaints instead of filing them online, as a customer service employee can assign the complaint a case number right away and the person filing the complaint will have an easier way to track the progress of the case.
The workshop came to an end at 4 PM. Don Ijams and Ruth Beeker thanked all the city staff and residents who participated in the workshop, the volunteers who helped put the workshop together, and the attendees for their interest and input. They also recognized other city staff members who attended the workshop to listen to the dialog.
Bonnie Poulos was the principal source for these notes. Several other sources were used, including materials from from Joan Daniels and Joan Hall. Edited by D. S. Ijams
Part of a thank you note sent to the main presenters included the following:
I very much appreciate the effort you all put in to support today’s NSN/TRRG town hall – Improving Code Enforcement in Tucson. I believe that most attendees left with a better understanding of code enforcement and of our City’s current status and its efforts to improve service delivery to the public.
We look forward to positive outcomes from initiatives underway, including
– Hiring good people to fill Code Inspector positions, and training and motivating them well
– Maximizing CE staffing in the face of tight budgets and competing staffing needs
– Focusing new inspectors on property maintenance complaints for a quick strike
– Following through on efforts to obtain CE process improvements that really result in a more efficient use of resources
– Implementing an effective post-card pre-notification program to catch property owners who just need a nudge, with minimal use of CE resources
– Mobilizing creativity in the City Attorney’s Office to effectively thwart chronic offenders’ ability to slide through the system mostly untouched
– Linking volunteer property cleanups to people clearly in need of assistance, thereby producing win-win situations, cleaner neighborhoods, more neighborhood cohesion and impetus for more voluntary property maintenance
– Carrying out whatever clean sweeps are possible of signs, mattresses, couches, curbside and alley debris, as often as possible, as efficiently as possible
Both NSN and TRRG detect a momentum building for involving citizens in government more effectively, and in improving service delivery for general community benefit. Our town hall today benefited greatly from the good will and sincere participation of our City guests, Messrs Wyneken, Saldate and Rankin. Thank you. D. S. Ijams