Tuesday, September 18, 2012

TOP STORY >> Code unit to focus on businesses

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville code enforcement officers are shifting their focus from residential to commercial properties and say they’re trying to work with people instead of against them.

Code enforcement was reassigned to the police department in December and took on a new approach. The code officers now patrol sections of the city rather than responding when complaints alert them of a violation.

Code enforcement officer Charles Jenkins said his department has issued 11 warnings and citations in the past six months, an average of two per month.

The Leader has received several letters complaining about the department’s efforts to clean up the city and questioning whether the city is tiptoeing around businesses that are violating the ordinances.

Jenkins said, “Anytime you have change, even change for the better, you have folks who are unhappy with the change and we understand that. A lot of times when I talk to them what I say isn’t what I would want to hear either.”

But, he added, “If you take the time to communicate and just tell them to do something, but explain why, most people will understand.”

He also said the department has seen an increase in residents calling to let them know that a neighbor may be violating a city code. The officers have “cultivated a sense of immediate response,” Jenkins said.

Mayor Gary Fletcher said, “They can’t let those negative comments keep them from doing their jobs. It’s an election year and a lot of this is politically motivated. There are enough positive things happening in this city and in our schools that I don’t want to get lost in the negative thoughts of a few people. The vast majority has appreciated it.”

He said a least one Cabot resident has called the city to say Jacksonville is looking better and he hasn’t heard from any of the letter writers. Fletcher said Jacksonville residents with negative or positive input could easily reach him at his office.

He added that code violators who are physically or financially unable to bring their properties up to code could turn to many of the city’s churches for help.

Jenkins explained that some residents might be confusing a warning with a ticket because both are left on their windshield if their car is parked on the street or looks inoperable. A warning is orange. A citation is green and it’s the department’s last resort, he said.

Fletcher said the city has demolished 38 buildings since the new initiative.

Jenkins said, “I think people have the wrong perception of Code Enforcement. They think we’re just out looking for opportunities to make life difficult for people and nothing could be further from the truth. We’re actually trying to make life better for everybody.”

He said, “Our first priority has been residential areas because that’s where initially we saw the most need. They’re where the bulk of it was. Now we’re getting into the commercial areas.”

Fletcher said, “Nobody is getting any less attention than anyone else. We don’t play those games.”

Jenkins said violations at businesses are just more noticeable to the public because the businesses are located on busy thoroughfares.

Jenkins said recently code enforcement asked the owners of the closed Joe’s Coffee Legends at 1930 W. Main St. to fix the front of the building because it was falling down and infested with “critters,” like a family of possums.

He said the owners tore it down and paid for the repairs.

The owner of the closed KFC Restaurant on North First Street lives in California and is in litigation with the chain, Jenkins said, citing another example.

Code enforcement can’t legally do anything to that property with the exception of immediate safety issues. They can board up windows, but doing much else is usually out of the question.

The officers often encounter residential properties, many of them rental homes, which are owned by someone who lives out of state. That is even more common when dealing with businesses, Jenkins said.

In those cases, it is more difficult for code enforcement officers to contact someone to get the property up to code, he said. That condition delays how fast the officers can act, Jenkins said.

He said he was confused about one of the letters that appeared in The Leader recently. It mentioned windows being inspected for energy efficiencies.

Jenkins said his department has nothing to do with that. The only time the officers look at windows is when they are broken or unsafe in some other way. He said how efficient the windows are should be decided by the homeowner.

He said another issue residents have voiced concerns about is parking.

Jenkins said Little Rock code states that people can’t park in yards and they are allowed to park in the street.

It’s the reverse here, he said.

Jacksonville residents are allowed to park in their yard, parallel to their driveways, but they are not permitted to continuously park on the street.

According to Jenkins, people can’t “play musical cars” by parking different vehicles at different houses.

The “continuously” applies to the action of parking on the street rather than being attached to the car, he said.

Visitors can park on the street for a couple of hours, but it can’t be there for hours several days in a row. Code enforcement officers don’t work on the weekends, Jenkins added.

He also said people don’t realize how long it takes the city to take care of an unsafe building. In March, he showed The Leader a house on Stevenson Street. The inside had been destroyed in a fire. The demolition of that house is set for this week.