City set to enforce property violations
HUNTINGTON -- Huntington officials rang in the 2013-14 fiscal year Monday with a new set of laws intended to eliminate external sanitation violations such as trash, junk storage, graffiti, weeds and tall grass.
No citations were issued to property owners on Monday as officials set up the administrative portion of the enforcement, but officers are prepped to start issuing citations on Tuesday, according to Sgt. Darin Dempsey, who oversees the new Code Enforcement Unit with the Huntington Police Department.
The new ordinances, coupled with an additional code enforcement officer, are the next phase of a multi-pronged effort to clean up Huntington's neighborhoods. The city preceded the zero-tolerance policy launched Monday with a comprehensive spring cleanup campaign that netted more than 1,500 tons of trash.
City Council also adopted an ordinance in March targeting household furniture on front porches, and Mayor Steve Williams was successful in receiving approval from the state Municipal Home Rule Board to issue on-the-spot citations for external sanitation and other common nuisance violations. Williams, however, stressed that it was business as usual Monday.
"We're not going to have a massive sting against property owners," he said. "While we've been preparing ourselves to act promptly, this is not about raising revenue through fines. It's about bringing property owners into compliance and keeping their property in good condition so it doesn't have an adverse effect on their neighborhoods."
Williams has said that the on-the-spot citations will provide the "bite behind the bark" of the cleanup initiative. Before Monday, city officials were required to give property owners a 10-day warning to clean up their messes before issuing a citation. On-the-spot citations allow code enforcement to function in the same capacity as police officers issuing a speeding ticket.
If a violation is remedied between the time the citation is issued and the court date, the municipal judge will dismiss the matter.
Once a property owner receives a citation, the owner can notify the city that the problem has been addressed and a code enforcement officer will reinspect the property. Inspectors will also review any property that is not reported by the owner before the court date on a citation and determine if the problem has been addressed.
In both cases, if the issue was addressed, the city will notify municipal court of its compliance and will ask for the citation to be dismissed, according to Dempsey.
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.
Williams said the municipal court judge will handle each citation on a case-by-case basis with compliance being the goal.
"There's enough flexibility in the ordinance where if someone doesn't have the means to pay there are opportunities for community service," he said. "We will even come by and help someone remove junk if they show they are physically or financially unable to do it themselves. Our primary concern is compliance."
To align more closely the functions of law enforcement and code enforcement, Williams shifted all code enforcement operations last month from the Department of Inspections and Compliance to the Police Department. Since June 12, the city's lone code enforcement officer, John Baker, issued 71 warnings, according to Police Chief Skip Holbrook. A second code enforcement officer, Joe Holderby, was hired and started work Monday. The Police Department has applied for federal grants to hire two more code enforcement officers.
Police officers and firefighters also will play a role in code enforcement. Police officers will be able to issue on-the-spot citations if there are glaring violations, Holbrook said, but code enforcement will only be incidental to their primary law enforcement duties.
"We're not expecting a police officer to become the high-grass police," he said. "But this does give them another tool for their tool belt."
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.
Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.
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