March 18, 2010 in City

City fees jump for trash, other code violations

Fines imposed in 7 percent of 3,000 cases in 2009
By The Spokesman-Review
Colin Mulvany photo

This property on West Broadway Avenue was issued a $513 ticket last month because of accumulating trash. The city had attempted to clean up the yard in January, but officials could not reach all the trash and it continued to accumulate.
(Full-size photo)

Map of this story's location

County rules

Terry Liberty, Spokane County neighborhood service specialist, said the county, which handles code enforcement outside cities, rarely cleans up a property when owners refuse. Instead, if three warning letters are ignored, cases go to the prosecutor’s office for misdemeanor charges.

Spokane residents who ignore warnings from city code enforcement officers about abandoned vehicles, fire hazards, dilapidated structures or junk on their property will face significantly stiffer fees under new rules approved this week.

The increased charges are expected to generate about $100,000 for the city this year, about double what the city otherwise would have collected.

Under old rules, property owners of trashed land that the city cleaned up after warnings were ignored for 15 days paid a fee based on a portion of the city’s cost to remove the trash – an amount that averaged $59 last year.

The Spokane City Council this week increased the minimum cleanup or “abatement” fee to $284.

City code enforcement officers handled more than 3,000 cases last year. About 1,100 of them were for garbage problems on property.

Jonathan Mallahan, Spokane’s director of code enforcement and neighborhood services, said the changes were made to better reflect the city’s cost to remove trash and enforce the law.

Supporters of the amendments argued that if violators don’t pay more than the cost to remove waste, they don’t have an incentive to act.

“If we don’t send a strong message that it won’t be tolerated, it will be tolerated,” said Councilman Jon Snyder.

Mallahan stressed that in 93 percent of code enforcement cases last year, no fines were levied because responsible parties began or completed work on the problem within 15 days of receiving a warning. The waiting period was not changed in new rules.

Last year, the city cleaned up 108 properties after owners or tenants ignored warnings. If problems persist after abatement, the city issues tickets and, in rare cases, pursues misdemeanor charges.

Another change will force owners of cars the city labels as “junk vehicles” to pay $200 if they want to appeal the city’s decision. The new code also allows the city to issue a $513 ticket for owners who do not abide by junk car rulings, something it couldn’t do before.

Currently, appeals of junk car violations with the city’s hearing examiner are automatic and free.

“We would be holding a lot of hearings that nobody showed up to,” Mallahan said.

It is illegal to store cars outside enclosed structures when most of the following conditions exist: they are inoperable, more than 3 years old, substantially damaged or have a value equal to or less than its scrap value.

“We’re talking about rusted-out hulks that have little to no value outside the metal,” Mallahan said.

Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple, the only council member who voted against the changes to the rules, said he worries that folks rebuilding cars could be unfairly penalized by the rule.

“I am very concerned about abuse of authority,” Apple said.

Rules also were changed for fire hazards caused by overgrown vegetation and substandard and unfit structures. Before the law was amended, if warnings were ignored, the city would charge landowners the city’s expenses for removing dried weeds deemed to be fire hazards. The City Council vote added $85 to the cost.

The city increased its annual fee on owners of substandard structures from $600 to $1,500. But if the building is rehabilitated, $500 can be refunded.

Heather Trautman, Spokane’s code enforcement supervisor, said the city works with property owners to help them clean up property. The new rules, she said, won’t change that.

“That’s our goal, always – to get voluntary compliance,” she said.

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