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Council OKs on-the-spot citations

Citations
May. 23, 2013 @ 10:50 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Huntington officials will ask the Municipal Home Rule Board to grant the city a tool for eliminating blight.

Huntington City Council on Thursday unanimously adopted an ordinance under the state's Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program to issue on-the-spot citations for external sanitation violations and common nuisances. City officials will appear before the Home Rule Board on Friday, May 24, in Clarksburg to seek final approval of the citation ordinance.

The measure is part of a multi-pronged effort to clean up Huntington's neighborhoods. The city is nearing completion of a comprehensive spring cleanup campaign that has resulted in the disposal of about 1,100 tons of trash. City Council also adopted an ordinance in March targeting household furniture on front porches and in yards.

Mayor Steve Williams told council members Thursday the on-the-spot citations will provide the "bite behind the bark" of the cleanup initiative when the city takes a zero-tolerance policy to external sanitation and common nuisance violations such as trash, junk storage, graffiti, weeds and tall grass, and crumbled sidewalks on July 1.

Huntington now must give property owners a 10-day warning to clean up their messes before a citation can be issued. On-the-spot citations allow code enforcement to function in the same capacity as police officers issuing a speeding ticket, Williams said.

If a violation is remedied between the time the citation is issued and the court date, the municipal judge will dismiss the matter, the mayor said. If the issue is not addressed, the judge will assess fines of $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense, $300 for the third offense and $500 for each subsequent violation within a 12-month period.

Huntington was one of the four original cities accepted into the home rule pilot program in 2008. City officials have used it to tear down dilapidated housing more quickly, collect delinquent fees and implement a 1 percent sales tax along with reductions in the business and occupation tax. The tax changes have provided the city with more revenue and increased the potential for business growth, officials say.

The West Virginia Legislature approved a bill last month which extends the program through 2019 and allows up to 16 more cities to join existing participants Huntington, Charleston, Wheeling and Bridgeport. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed the bill into law May 3.

Charleston gained the ability to issue on-the-spot citations for external sanitation violations and common nuisances in 2009. Charleston inspectors have reported faster compliance, and only a few of the dozens of citations have been appealed to municipal court.

To align more closely the functions of law enforcement and code enforcement, Williams wants to shift all code enforcement operations from the Department of Inspections and Compliance to the Huntington Police Department. A resolution shifting the city's lone code enforcement technician to the Police Department is on the council's agenda for Tuesday, May 28.

The city will hire one more technician when the fiscal year begins July 1, and the Police Department has applied for a federal grant to hire a third code enforcement officer. Those officers will not carry firearms or badges, Capt. Hank Dial said.

Williams also plans to use police officers and firefighters in the enforcement blitz. Police officers will be able to issue on-the-spot citations if there are "obvious" violations, he said, but code enforcement will only be incidental to their primary law enforcement duties, he said.

As for the Fire Department, each fire station will conduct fire safety inspections in the neighborhoods that they serve, Williams said. Firefighters also will be able to issue citations during those inspections if they are not technical in nature, he said.

The citation ordinance and the requested changes to Huntington's home rule plan are posted on the city's website (www.cityofhuntington.com) in their entirety.

Huntington officials also are asking the Municipal Home Rule Board to approve the elimination of all language in Huntington's plan regarding a 1 percent occupation tax. Huntington City Council adopted the tax in 2011, but it was challenged in Kanawha Circuit Court before it could take effect. Although the judge has not issued a ruling, City Council repealed the occupation tax ordinance in March.

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.

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