Jul 28, 2014
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Building Department Found 18,600 Code Violations Last year; 670 Tickets Issued

Voices and eyebrows are raised in a 33-minute discussion of Royal Oak's property maintenance rules.

Building Department Found 18,600 Code Violations Last year; 670 Tickets Issued
One of the more heated dialogs at the strategic planning session on Saturday was a discussion of property maintenance.

The Royal Oak City Commission voted in November to direct staff to come up with solutions for better ways to deal with the city's Property Maintenance Code.

Mayor Jim Ellison started the discussion by reiterating that he would like the city to come up with a different kind of plan for do-it-yourself projects where homeowners would work out a written agreement or contract with the Building Department that outlines deadlines.

"Now Jason (Craig, chief building official) tells me he already does that," Ellison said.

Ellison pointed to the case of a community blogger who wrote: " Restoring a Royal Oak Bungalow - a Criminal Offense."

"In this particular case, the building department worked on an agreement that the homeowner agreed with and their answer was to go to the newspaper," Ellison said. "It made the building department look bad even though they had bent over backwards to try to accommodate the work."

[Read:  City Manager Responds to Code Violation Nightmare]

How the process works

"I want to start by making sure everyone understands what the code enforcement process is," said Craig. "We have a book of ordinances that we follow, so right off the bat we ask, 'Is it a violation?' We might get a complaint. We might go out and see it. How ever we get to that violation, we attempt to notify the owner (with a letter) that there is a violation on the property...We give them a certain amount of time to fix it or respond."

The amount of time given to resolve a violation depends on on various factors. A ticket is the last case scenario, Craig said.

"I'll give you an example. If we go out and a person has a broken screen, how long does it take to fix that violation?" Craig said. "There are two ways to fix it. One is to get new screens or patch what you have, and that can take you a couple of weeks. Another way to fix the violation is just to remove the screen. It takes about 10 minutes."

"It's not a requirement that you have screens," said City Manager Don Johnson.

"Are people told these options?" asked Mayor Pro-Tem Dave Poulton.

"No," Craig said.

"Well why don't you just tell them?" Poulton said.

"We tell them when they call us and and say, 'What do you mean? What's going on with my screen?'" Craig said. "Our deadlines are basically set up so that they contact us. So they get a hold of us and let us know that they understand the problem and they are working on fixing it." 

Johnson explained that violation letters sent by the department tend to be somewhat legalize.

18,600 violations in the city last year

"In my interactions with people across the city in the last few months, they have told me they are given this deadline and the next thing is there's this building person saying, 'It's not done. Here's a ticket," said Poulton.

Craig said his department found approximately 18,600 violations in the city last year.

"Three (code enforcement officers) found 18,600 violations?" said Poulton. He later called the number "staggering."

"Yes, and 670 tickets were written from it," Craig said. "Those are the people that didn't respond."

Of the 670 tickets, probably half of them were to people who received multiple tickets, Craig said.

Many of the tickets are contested but Craig estimated his department's success rate in court is 98 percent.

The ticket that is issued for a code enforcement violation is either a misdemeanor or a civil infraction, said City attorney Dave Gillam.

"If it's a civil infraction, it's basically the same as if you get a speeding ticket, you have the right to contest it," said Gillam. With a misdemeanor, Gillam said his office gets involved. 

"I don't hear from...either of the judges that the tickets these guys are writing are bad tickets," Gillam said. "There are tickets that we do dismiss over there but it's not a reflection on the merits of the tickets."

Gillam said his goal is compliance.

"These guys are working with people as much as they can. They wrote up 18,600 violations and they ended up giving 670 tickets on 300 some properties, (which is 3.7 percent)," the mayor said. "So this discussion that our code enforcement people are going out there and harassing people is (unfortunate)...If we don't want all these violations, then we need to change the code."

"I think the thing that we are not seeing is our code enforcement has prevented our city from having blight," said Commissioner Peggy Goodwin.

The first point of a city declining is inadequate code enforcement, she said.

"I don't think we are doing anything wrong in code enforcement. Can people be a little more customer friendly and compassionate? Everyday of the week," Goodwin said.

In November, Ellison asked that Code Enforcement identify the issues that they have the most problems with and see if there is any way to "massage some of those codes." 

The quandary, Ellison said, is that some of the codes are one-size-fits-all.

No "problem" issues or codes were identified in the 33-minute conversation.


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