City plans to add new department in 2010

Friday, September 18, 2009 | 6:43 p.m. CDT; updated 10:41 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 19, 2009

COLUMBIA — Neighborhoods might soon see a more efficient response to complaints about too-tall grass, trash in yards and peeling paint.

A new department, the Office of Neighborhood Services, is included in the proposed 2010 budget. City Manager Bill Watkins said creating this department was an efficient and cost-effective way to answer Columbia City Council concerns about the handling of “nuisance properties,” those properties in violation of city health or building codes.

The office would bring staff from Volunteer Programs, Public Communications, the Office of Protective Inspections and Environmental Health under one roof in an effort to improve coordination between staff. The proposed budget includes $732,067 for the department's work.

Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill said this improved coordination would speed up the process of enforcing city ordinances.

“With the deficit in the budget, everyone had to take a step back and think about how to grow more efficient, to cut the fat, so to speak,” he said. “This is a perfect way to be more efficient and to get more done with the same people.”

Watkins said the department would initially consider making changes to city property ordinances and procedures for prosecuting nuisance property owners. The department will include a city attorney to assist in any legal issues.

“One of the things we’re going to do in the first couple of months of the fiscal year is to meet on a regular basis with other involved department heads and talk about any procedural or ordinance changes that may speed things up,” Watkins said. “Perhaps we’ll change how we prioritize rental inspections, for example. I’m hopeful that as we talk through those things and brainstorm, we’ll get ideas to bring to council.”

Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said examining the ordinances was a good idea.

“I think we need to always be looking at ways to make our ordinances more effective and to accomplish our purposes, not just with the property codes, but with all the codes in general,” Wade said. “That’s part of how you keep up-to-date and learn from experience.”

Neighborhood Response Coordinator Bill Cantin said he hopes the new department will allow him to enforce city codes.

“Right now I send courtesy letters out to problem properties, but I have never been in a department where I am able to enforce anything,” Cantin said. “I’m assuming and hoping that once we combine, I’ll be able to help the inspectors out by processing and prosecuting problem properties.”

Aside from examining city codes, many of the office’s goals remain undefined.

“After the budget is approved, a lot of additional work will need to be done to figure out what the goals of the office are,” Volunteer Coordinator Leigh Britt said. She said she hopes to see additional outreach and more accessible resources for citizens and neighborhood associations.

Cantin said the city should reach out to citizens to help solve neighborhood problems.

“Columbia is big enough now that this more neighborhood-centric approach is appropriate,” he said. “We need to be engaging everybody citywide to help us do our job.

“Bringing these offices together is a way to take a leadership role and help the community help itself.”

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said the new department is an indicator that the city is looking for citizen input in government, shifting from a top-down to a bottom-up approach.

“This group is a way to empower that change and to suggest to folks, both symbolically and tangibly with a few dollars, that we want to shift the paradigm,” Skala said.

Britt said citizens could help define the office’s roles.

“I encourage people to stay tuned in the next six months, after the office gets going,” she said. “They are going to hear more about it, and I think we could get input from citizens on what would be useful to them, too.”

These changes hinge on council’s approval of the budget, which is expected to happen at its regular meeting Sept. 21. If approved, Watkins said the department would come under one roof in January.

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Ray Shapiro September 20, 2009 | 11:42 a.m.

Grass, trash and paint...oh my.
If we can't hold landlords accountable for providing "safe houses" for criminals, why spend three-quarters of a million dollars on what amounts to a physical beautification priority?
Addressing tall grass, the need for touch up paint and trash in one's yard is not a nuisance, it's just unsightly.
Property values and neighborhood crime will not improve as a result of this project.
IMHO, holding landlords accountable for who they rent to and how some of their tenants are destroying Columbia seems to be more important then grass, trash and paint.
After we clean up "hot spots" like the northern part of JT's 2nd ward, then landlord and tenant relationships might just develop to a cooperative effort to maintain properties.
Personally, if the city had three quarter of a mill laying around, I'd sooner have a program to help some quality renters purchase the home they currently rent from their slum lord. However, if money's tight, I'd focus on landlords enabling criminal activity in our town.
This proposed three-quarter million dollar nuisance expenditure just does't even approach the kind of change I can believe in.

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