Vicksburg’s community court carries big – but soft – hammer

Published 1:00 am Sunday, May 2, 2010

You could call Vicksburg Community Court the last line of defense the city has when it comes to getting residents to keep their grass cut, their yards clean and their homes in compliance with building maintenance and utility codes.

Established eight years ago to encourage private property beautification and unburden the municipal court from having to hear non-criminal cases, community court convenes once a month. Its judge, Toni Walker Terrett, has the authority to fine property owners found in violation of local ordinances, which are based on state law and the International Property Maintenance Code.

Following the court’s April hearing — in which, of about 30 cases, just one suspended fine stemming from a privilege license case was handed down — Terrett said the court aims for code compliance over financial punishment.

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“Most of the people who come before me do want to make the improvements, but sometimes it takes getting a citation to come to court for them to actually begin to move ahead with getting the problem taken care of,” said Terrett, who was tapped in July by Mayor Paul Winfield to take over the court that previously had only one judge.

Each property code violation — the most common being for unkempt lawns, unsightly trash, junked-out cars, dilapidated homes or unsecured vacant buildings — carries a minimum $1,000 fine. However, Terrett said imposing a fine in most cases doesn’t do much good because the offenders can’t afford to pay it. Instead, she said the court tries to give offenders time and encouragement to fix the problem.

“We usually give them extensions that are reasonable, and sometimes we give them as much as six months to get the work done — as long as they’re showing some effort and some willingness to work with us,” she said.

Much time, effort and money are spent by the city in its attempts to see lawns and homes maintained throughout the city. Terrett is paid $7,250 per year for her services, which accounts for the bulk of the community court expense as no clerks are needed to handle paperwork.

The city set aside just less than $1 million for the inspection department in the current fiscal year budget, compared with $948,000 last fiscal year and $808,000 in fiscal year 2008. While the department’s three inspectors spend the majority of their time making sure commercial building and utility codes are enforced, they also perform hundreds of grass and yard inspections each year. Inspectors also have to take time out of their schedules once a month to appear in community court as witnesses. Code Enforcement Officer David Miller — who’s been with the city 16 years, eight of them in the inspection department — said the effort is worth it.

“If you could see the city eight or 10 years ago and then compare it to today, you’d see a big difference,” Miller said. “We have made a difference through enforcement, and the city is better for it.”

Quantifying the impact of code enforcement and the community court is difficult, and to do that, the city is working on compiling a citywide inventory of its approximately 10,000 homes and commercial structures. The first such inventory was taken in 2006, and the inspection department will compare the results of the 2010 inventory — which is expected to be completed this year — to look for trends in compliance neighborhood by neighborhood.

“I’ve seen a trend of ownership responsibility increasing across the city since I came here in 2002,” said Building and Inspections Director Victor Gray-Lewis. “I’ve seen neighborhoods where one person begins to take pride in their property and begins to fix it up, and pretty soon you see the neighbors around them begin to take more pride in their own properties and the whole block begins to look better. That’s the whole idea.”

Miller said most homeowners he comes across during inspections want to get into compliance and work with the city’s inspectors. However, he said there are always going to be some property owners who continually buck the system or simply cannot be located.

“I get to know a lot of the people I’m dealing with because I’m dealing with them time and time again, writing them up almost every year,” he said. “Then you have others who realize the city is serious in its efforts, and they realize the importance of keeping their property up.”

If a property owner winds up on the community court docket, in most cases he’s already been contacted several times by the city’s inspection department or his case has appeared before the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen. When one of the department’s inspectors finds a violation, a letter is sent to the property owner, encouraging him to contact the department and work out a solution.

“It’s always been our position to work with property owners and give people time to fix the problem before they go before the board or get a citation to go to court,” said Gray-Lewis. “We have file after file here that shows us working with property owners for months and months — sometimes even for years — to get them into compliance. Sometimes we’re lenient to a fault.”

When property issues are taken to the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen, it can can give approval to have lawns cut and properties cleaned or demolished if the owner is non-responsive. Gray-Lewis said the only instances in which property owners are cited to appear in court without first appearing before the board is if they live outside Vicksburg and have been unreachable in the past.

“Even if the property owner is only over in Jackson, we’ve found it’s still hard to get them to do what they need to do,” he said. “Most of those cases go straight to the community court.”

The last thing the city wants to do, Gray-Lewis said, is spend taxpayers’ dollars to cut grass or remove trash from someone’s yard if they can get the homeowner to do it himself. Property cleanups and lawn cuttings approved by the board are contracted out, while city employees handle all demolitions. Gray-Lewis said about 30 demolitions have taken place each year since 2002, costing the city up to $3,500 each.

Demolitions have been a point of contention in recent years. Shortly after Winfield beat former Mayor Laurence Leyens in the general election last summer, the new mayor enacted a freeze on demolitions while the city applied for a $30 million federal grant to rehabilitate dilapidated homes.

That freeze was lifted this spring when the grant application was denied. Today, about 40 homes are on the city’s demo list. Gray-Lewis said any home on the list still can be salvaged if the owner steps forward with a plan to bring it up to code.

“One thing I want to be clear about is this: we have never evicted anyone by taking down a house,” said Gray-Lewis. “We’ve been accused of putting people out of their homes, but that’s just not true. The houses we take down are dilapidated beyond the point of somebody inhabiting them.”

Another allegation the inspection department routinely faces from the public is selective enforcement. Gray-Lewis said the city’s inspectors don’t target any neighborhood over another, and they don’t drive up and down city streets looking for violations.

“It’s a complaint-driven process,” he said. “When someone calls us about their neighbor’s lawn being overgrown or trash in their yard, we go out and inspect it. Every inspection is logged, and it’s either marked founded or unfounded. If the complaint is founded, we begin the process of trying to the get the problem fixed. If it’s unfounded, it ends there.”

A wall-sized map of all the city’s buildings was produced after the 2006 building inventory was completed. On it, buildings are outlined in either blue, green or red. Blue denotes an excellent inspection, green is good and red is poor.

Not surprisingly, newer subdivisions in the city are almost uniformly blue. Green and red properties are spotted throughout the city, with the largest concentration of red dots primarily downtown and in the North Ward, represented by Alderman Michael Mayfield.

Driving through his “old stomping grounds” in Marcus Bottom, Mayfield points out homes on every block that have faced code enforcement issues through the years. Some are newly rehabilitated and freshly painted, some are still in the process and others are marked for demolition.

“All of these vacant lots you see, that’s where houses used to be that the city has had to take down over the years,” the alderman said. “In the black community, it’s generally a money thing — people don’t have the money to fix up these homes. The other problem is about 60 percent of these cases involve heir property, and finding someone to take responsibility can be tough. That leaves us stuck in the middle.”

Mayfield said it breaks his heart to see homes torn down that he played in as a child, but defended the city’s code enforcement efforts as necessary to ensure public safety.

“Here you have a vacant house that is ripe for vagrants to move into, and look what you have around it — a church and a neighborhood full of people who are doing their part to maintain their properties,” Mayfield said as he looked over a home marked for demolition on Jackson Street. “If a fire breaks out in here for one reason or another, the whole block can pay the price.”

That point has been made painfully clear several times already this year. A fire that broke out in a vacant house on Second North Street in late January claimed five homes and a neighborhood grocery store before the smoke cleared. In February, another fire destroyed two vacant homes on Grove Street. The January blaze was ruled arson, and Leroy Evans, 32, of Utica has since been charged. The February fire was ruled accidental.

“We also had a fire break out in a vacant house on Main Street, and the house next door — which a lady had been renovating and was getting ready to rent out — her house was damaged in the process,” said Fire Chief Charles Atkins. “So, we’ve already had three instances of a fire breaking out in a vacant home and spreading to occupied homes. They’re a real hazard, and not just from a fire perspective. Often times, children like to play in or around vacant homes, and they can be seriously injured.”

The fire department is working with city officials to use homes slated for demolition in fire training exercises. Thus far, Atkins said six homes have been given to the department, but none has been burned as some inspections still need to be performed.

“I haven’t seen a report that shows it will save us a lot of money, but what it will do is provide us the opportunity to get some real live fire training and search and rescue training,” said Atkins.

Mayfield spent nine years as a county supervisor before being elected North Ward alderman. In the county, there is no code enforcement, leaving supervisors and residents powerless if someone refuses to cut their lawn or allows trash to pile up. When asked about the effectiveness of the city’s code enforcement efforts, Mayfield did not hesitate to say it has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the city’s scenery and safety.

“Without a doubt, I see the difference we’re making every day,” Mayfield said. “Though working with people we have saved probably 40 to 50 percent of the homes that otherwise would have had to be taken down. And we’re putting forth much more effort now to help people get low-interest loans and grant money to get their properties up to code. The board, the inspections department, the community court — we’re all putting forth a tremendous effort to work with folks, and I think we’re seeing a lot of positive results.”