Working together to enhance our community

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Los Alamos County Council Chair

This is part three of a three-part series.

In part one of my editorial on code enforcement, I covered the “why” behind the program, and in part two, I addressed the “how” of the process that is involved. Today in part three, I would like to talk more philosophically about code enforcement and what the county and the community can do to assist with resources. 

Let me address the “government-encroachment” argument first which I have heard a few times. I can understand that some, and probably most individuals feel an initial gut feeling of government overreach when an ordinance is passed that imposes additional personal responsibilities for property maintenance. However, *any* new law, by definition, imposes new constraints on our freedoms.

After that initial reaction, we need to then look at the fundamental issue that this new ordinance is addressing, and whether it is the right approach or not. If no one drove dangerously, we would not need speeding limits. If everyone was attentive to their property, we wouldn’t need property maintenance standards either. We do have a property maintenance problem in town, and I don’t see a practical alternative to some kind of code and its enforcement.

I have heard from some residents who feel that a Code Enforcement Notice Of Violation handed out to the elderly or infirm or those with disabilities, is an unfair imposition, and certainly those are sympathetic situations. That our town is patrolled by unthinking and uncaring officers is simply not true. Under our current process, Code Enforcement officers are required – and my experience is that they truly desire - to work through these kinds of issues with a property owner. If the person is having difficulty coming into compliance because of some kind of unique circumstance, the officers try to find a helpful way to address the issue over time or with other resources.

I am not aware of any case where a NOV recipient reached out to code enforcement because they could not comply for valid reasons and code enforcement has not, in turn, worked collaboratively. In part two of my series, I noted that out of 1,007 notices in 2017, only 45 went on to the court hearing process. This indicates to me that our code enforcement officers are being patient and understanding of special circumstances, and trying hard to avoid court citations.
To those who say that it is unfair to cite someone who generally cannot do the work themselves, or, cannot afford a contractor – what solutions can you offer to address the real problem of blight in our community? I have heard many personal stories, most recently at the latest Council booth at the Farmer’s Market, of people living next door to the type of situation that is visibly or emotionally impacting their property or quality of life. Maybe those who feel the county is overreaching might feel differently if they were in similar situations to those I heard at the event. You may not be hearing from these impacted neighbors in our community, but councilors and staff are hearing from them and getting some “thank you’s” because a problematic issue has been addressed successfully.

We are working with community organizations to develop lists of resources, such as civic or religious organizations, that can assist with either hands-on labor, or, with emergency funding to pay for a contractor to clean up the issue that involves the NOV. We can also help our own neighbors directly. I remember fondly my next-door neighbor years ago back East who took pity on me as I tried to shovel several feet of snow off my driveway, and brought his massive snow blower to help me finish the job when he was done with his own. If you are interested in cleaning up your neighborhood, why not reach out to your neighbors and organize a block party? There are ways that all of us can pitch in to help solve this problem by working together.

In closing, I would like to reiterate that – even though it is never popular - local government bears the responsibility of enforcing laws. If you are a police officer and see someone is speeding, you can pull them over and either issue a warning or an actual ticket. No one enjoys getting a speeding ticket, but again no one questions whether or not a police officer should patrol streets and look for speeding violations or other laws that are on the books. Why is it any different for code enforcement?

Code enforcement is about making progress toward a positive outcome; without a deadline on an NOV or the threat of court fines the hardest cases would likely not be motivated to be resolved.  Again, referring to part two, I researched this with CDD and found that court fines were imposed only twice out of more than one thousand NOV! For those who have complained that “there isn’t enough time” to address a major property issue such as a new roof, broken window or peeling paint – have you contacted the Code Enforcement Official to meet at the property and discuss what can be reasonably done, with a time table and commitment to fix the issue or hire a contractor?

The expanded property maintenance standards placed in the code in 2014 were made with a considerable amount of debate and public comment and with open discussion among the Councilors, and was the culmination of many years of conversation about blight in our county.

These codes are commonly found in other communities and I find them to be reasonable and achievable. Over the last few years, I have seen tremendous improvement in the curb appeal and cleanliness in our neighborhoods and businesses, and I am proud of this change. Many have made same observation and are encouraged by the positive change. I am sure we can do a better job of moving our community forward, and I am open to constructive suggestions, but the job itself needs to be done.