Amid confusion, civil penalties

Confusion has prevented Henderson from collecting any money in civil penalties for code violations since the City Council authorized such fines last May.

Now two council members say they will have to revisit the ordinance to clarify the intent and streamline the process.

Code Compliance Director Corey Williams and Police Chief Glen Allen discussed the problem with the Clean Up Henderson Committee at its regular meeting Wednesday morning.

Williams and Allen said they had extensive meetings with City Attorney John Zollicoffer in the fall on how to implement civil penalties.

“What we originally thought was going to be a paragraph (in the ordinance) explaining how this thing would work, maybe two paragraphs, turned out we’re talking pages,” Allen said, adding that the sections covering his department and the Fire Department are much clearer than the portions that apply to the Code Compliance Department.

“It was completely confusing,” Williams said.

Williams said the meetings with Zollicoffer eventually cleared up the confusion, but the result is not what City Council members wanted.

At the urging of the cleanup committee, the City Council approved civil penalties for a range of code violations last year. After the ordinance was passed in May, the penalties were supposed to go into effect by September.

Under Williams’ domain, penalties can range from $50 to $500 for overgrown lots and from $500 to $4,500 for abandoned structures. The ordinance allows penalties of $100 to $250 for junked cars, which fall under Allen’s department. The Public Works and Fire departments also can levy penalties but apparently haven’t.

The police haven’t issued any civil penalties, Allen said, because they apply only to repeat junk-car offenders, and officers haven’t dealt with any of those yet.

“Are we generating any funds from any place?” council member Mary Emma Evans asked.

Williams said the absence of penalties is not a sign that the ordinance is a failure. He said compliance has improved because he includes the threat in the abatement letters he sends to code violators. “It gets a quick response.”

Under the process worked out with Zollicoffer, the Code Compliance Department sends an abatement letter after it spots a violation such as a yard choked with weeds and filled with trash. The property owner has seven days to correct the problem, then has a three-day grace period before penalties kick in.

In addition to that automatic 10-day delay, property owners have the right to appeal penalties and seek more time.

In part because of the appeal provision, Williams said he is lenient with property owners who call in response to abatement letters and ask for time to take action. That leniency depends on the violation: Williams won’t grant extra time to people who just need to clean up trash, but he will if a yard is covered with debris and the weather has been bad.

As for abandoned structures, the penalties are caught up in the due process involved in forcing owners to repair or demolish houses. The penalties would kick in about the time Williams brought a house before the council for approval to tear it down, and it’s hard enough for the city to collect the demolition fees.

“Once we start this, and once we do this, we need to be consistent,” Williams said.

His report frustrated council member Elissa Yount, whose Land Planning and Development Committee crafted the civil penalties ordinance. Yount has said an active Code Compliance Department could pay for itself with the money it raises in penalties.

“We don’t do what we say we’re going to do,” Yount said.

She said Williams’ description was entirely different from how the penalty process was meant to work. Yount thought Williams would write tickets for violations, just as someone would write a parking ticket or a speeding ticket, but property owners who corrected the problem within 10 days would have the penalties forgiven.

“It’s not rocket science, and other cities do it very efficiently,” Yount said.

“It’s not rocket science, but it is the practice of law, and the city attorney was quite involved with it,” Allen said.

Cleanup committee Vice Chairman Frank Terry, who presided over Wednesday’s meeting, said the committee will try to get Zollicoffer and City Manager Eric Williams to the next meeting, April 13, to discuss the penalty problem.

Yount said the council can change the ordinance if it’s so confusing. “It certainly wasn’t intended to be complicated.”

She and Evans said the council needs to simplify and streamline the ordinance.

“I don’t want the city … to think that you’re not doing your job,” said Evans, who vowed to ensure that the Code Compliance Department survives with Williams as director.

Williams said he expects to issue the first civil penalties in the next few days for four or five properties whose owners he’s certain won’t correct the problems.

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