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Sat., April 10, 2010

City code enforcement taking steps worth kudos

Everyone’s heard the protests. Government’s out of control, ordering people around, restricting property rights. But sometimes citizens count on government to step in – for the sake of order.

Last year in Spokane, city code enforcement officers checked out more than 3,000 properties for problems such as junked cars and appliances and assorted other garbage. Most incidents were handled uneventfully, but a minority of cases ended with the city arranging a cleanup and billing the resident. The average fee was only about $60, but the tension between government authority and private ownership can be a recipe for conflict.

It should be noted, however, that none of the 3,000-plus episodes was initiated by city officials. Rather, they were prompted by complaints from neighbors intent on guarding their own property from threats to its safety and sightliness.

With that in mind, it’s good to hear that the city’s Office of Neighborhood Services and Code Enforcement has teamed with community volunteers and neighborhood councils to achieve what promises to be a more efficient and cost-effective operation. At least three times since last fall, code enforcement officers have provided training sessions that include both classroom presentations and time scouring residential areas, learning firsthand what differentiates one person’s code violation from another’s quirky taste, and handing out violation notices when necessary. Other neighborhoods are waiting their turn.

Judging by one recent session, Jonathan Mallahan, director of the department, estimates the extra manpower could reduce the average time spent on a complaint from 26 days to 18 and cut property visits in half. That’s an encouraging efficiency in a department that has only 4 1/2 code enforcement officers to cover the city.

But what may be even more valuable is the message sent to a skeptical community when a government agency is seen in a cooperative role with neighbors and fellow citizens. Enforcement officer Heather Trautman stresses that the objective is voluntary compliance, not tickets and fines, but the city nevertheless has beefed up its fines, in part to make sure noncompliant residents have an incentive to do their own cleanup and then maintain it.

Until about four years ago, code enforcement and neighborhood services – where many compliance complaints were directed – were separate operations. The merger, according to Trautman, was a “natural combination.”

And an efficient one.

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