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City Council hears problems and successes of Code Services Division

By Amanda Raymond
amanda.raymond@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The number of code violations in the city are more than the resources of the Code Services Division can handle, according to Preston Mitchell.

Mitchell, Planning and Development Services manager for Salisbury, gave an update on the state of the Code Services Division at the City Council meeting on Tuesday.

He started by saying that when he became manager of the division about four and a half months ago, he learned that there were “significant deficiencies in process and procedure” that he and the division had to work on while dealing with the summer growing season.

“I’d like to reassure the citizens of Salisbury and City Council … there is not one single ordinance that I am sworn to uphold that I choose not to enforce,” he said, “nor is there one single ordinance that the officers and the code enforcement division of this city — there is not one single ordinance that they choose not to enforce.”

The city is divided into two zones for the two code enforcement officers to cover, with each zone being 18 square miles. For comparison, Mitchell said the city of Lexington is about 18 square miles.

There is also an employee who works in the city’s One-Stop Shop who handles administrative duties, and the division will be advertising for a code coordinator position.

Mitchell said for this year up until the meeting on Tuesday, there have been a total of 1,287 cases, including 102 housing cases, 1,032 nuisance cases, 78 zoning cases and 75 miscellaneous cases. Just under $23,090 has been either billed or placed as liens on properties in that same time period.

Mitchell explained that there are procedures and processes that they have to follow before they can abate properties, including mowing.

“In the past, a previous contractor that we had would simply mow properties and just keep mowing,” Mitchell said. “And so we were acting as a mowing service, and we can’t do that. That’s not appropriate.”

Two contractors handle mowing and housing violations. Only after the case has been assigned to an officer, a notice of violation has been issued and the compliance date has passed can an abatement contract be drawn up by the officer. Mitchell then reviews the contract and determines if it is appropriate to give the contract to one of the contractors. The contractor then mows or otherwise abates the property and takes a picture of it for documentation, and a lien is placed on the property.

That process has to be followed all the way through at least three separate times before the property can be labeled as a chronic violator, which allows the city to just go in and mow the lawn while placing liens on the property, as pointed out after a question from Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell later in the discussion. The label will only apply for the current growing period.

As far as new things going on in the division, Mitchell talked about a new internal policy that gives property owners one year to fix housing violations that don’t exactly fall into deterioration or dilapidation categories.

Code officers will carry around forms so they can issue notices on the spot and they will be able to receive complaints in real time while they are out in the field through a software program.

Mitchell said one problem the division has faced is figuring out who owns the properties that are receiving the violations. He said sometimes the property owner is deceased and the ownership has not transferred over to another person, bank or the government.

“We receive phone calls from folks regularly saying, ‘Why isn’t this lot being mowed?’ And we have to explain to them, well, first of all we have to follow a particular process and procedure, second, nobody’s receiving the mail and nobody’s there to receive a personal violation because they’re not with us anymore,” he said.

There has also been a high number of foreclosures, and sometimes the properties are in the middle of transferring to another owner so there is uncertainty around who to send violation notices to.

Mitchell said he hopes to come back to council with proposed ordinance to allow the division to abate properties right away when the owner of the property cannot be verified and issue liens to be paid when the property is finally transferred to the correct owner.

Mayor Pro Tem Blackwell said the council should look at adding more people to the division.

“Our housing stock is an economic development issue — how it maintains. And so I think we seriously need to consider additional staff in this area,” she said.

She also thanked the officers and Mitchell for their hard work.

Councilman Kenny Hardin mentioned that there were houses that have been boarded up for around 30 years that have not been addressed, and Mitchell said those were some of the houses that had property owners who were deceased or the property was under no one’s control.

Hardin said citizens should not put so much blame on the city and hold their neighbors accountable as well.

“I think it needs to be a balance of restoring community pride versus having expectations of the city,” he said.

Councilman Brian Miller challenged Mitchell to come back before the council and tell them exactly what the division needs.

“We want to give you the proper resources, the proper tools, to do what needs to be done,” he said.

Mitchell said he will research what other cities of similar size have done and come back before the council with suggestions.

Contact reporter Amanda Raymond at 704-797-4222.

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