Changes in code enforcement division will make reporting violators easier for residents

By ANTHONY WARREN,

It could soon be easier for Northsiders to report that neighbor with overgrown grass or a car parked in the yard.

Several major changes are on tap for Jackson’s community improvement division, the division that oversees code enforcement.

Among the changes, the department is implementing new software that will make it easier for residents to report code violations and track the city’s progress in addressing them.

Jackson is also changing its policies on how to deal with derelict owners and is working with the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District (CMPDD) to create an electronic database of all blighted properties in the city.

Deputy Director of Planning Jordan Hillman said the new software, along with the new property database, will help the city keep better track of blighted properties, as well as aid in determining where the city can best deploy resources.

The new software, which will allow residents to track city’s code enforcement efforts in real-time, will also make the department more “transparent and accountable for results,” she said.

“Code enforcement officers will be issued mobile field devices that will allow them to enter inspections and photos in real time and … issue letters, fines and follow-up actions,” Hillman explained. “The same system will allow community members to submit online complaints and see in real time, updates the officer has made to the case.”

The system should go live by the end of the calendar year.

It is being installed by Viewpoint Government Solutions, LLC.

The city council brought on the Boston-based firm in March, awarding a contract not to exceed $139,800.

Viewpoint was chosen through the request for proposals process. Three firms submitted proposals, and Viewpoint was by far the lowest and best bid, according to city documents.

For the 2019 fiscal year, community improvement was allocated $446,000 for property adjudication. The city has spent $113,000 to date, with another $175,000 encumbered for additional cleanups, Hillman said.

“That leaves approximately $158,000 remaining for this fiscal year to be allocated. The officers have a large backlog of properties prepared and will exhaust all available money this year,” she said.

Since October 1, the start of the fiscal year, community improvement has cleaned 71 properties, and has approval to clean 42 more. The department expects to adjudicate an additional 25 to 30 properties by the end of the fiscal year.

Jackson is also changing its strategy to encourage more code violators to bring their properties into compliance, including considering filing criminal charges against derelict owners.

Currently, code enforcement officials follow state statute, which allows Jackson to complete several administrative steps before cleaning up a derelict site. After cleaning a site, the city can then attach cleanup costs to the owner’s annual property taxes.

However, that process has a couple of major flaws. First, the city can only attach those costs once it cleans a property, and it can only clean a property if the funding is available. Second, derelict owners often don’t pay their property taxes, meaning the liens are never collected on.

Hillman said many owners have ignored to the city’s requests to cleanup properties as a result.

“It has become well known that the city does not have the resources to perform all the cleanups … so many property owners have become unresponsive,” she said. “If the city never performs the cleanup due to lack of resources, the property owner really isn’t affected.”

Because of that, Hillman said the city will now consider filing criminal charges against non-compliant owners, in an effort to achieve compliance.

Criminals convicted under city statute could face up to one year behind bars and fines of up to $5,000.

In 2017, the city council approved amending Section 66-44 of its health and sanitation ordinance to allow for the stiffer penalties.

Code enforcement has five field officers and five support staffers.

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