The Code Enforcement Conundrum
QUALITY OF LIFE; what do these three words mean to you? For most of us, the answer is pretty clear. Are my basic needs met? Am I feeling physically well? Am I happy?
For municipalities, however, there are more questions embedded in Quality of Life than answers. In the municipal world, there are no shortage of ways to enforce criminal law. Municipal codes and ordinances, however, are often a different story. Do we really ticket Sally, an upstanding citizen, for keeping trash in her front yard? What if she’s fallen on tough times and can’t afford the violation amount? The same problem is contrasted with other homeowners in the town whose property values are falling due to the growing trash heap in Sally’s front yard. Do they really have to sit on their porches and have bucolic views ruined by Sally’s mess?
There is a solution however, and it leans towards utilitarianism and restraint, stating that the best answer to a situation is one that provides the greatest net good for all. This is essentially taking the many “me’s” of a municipal mindset and turning them in to a collective “we”. We value our investment in our homes. We need a clean community. We want a safe place for our children to play.
Creating a system that achieves this is no easy task, as there are benefits on both sides of the enforcement aisle. More revenue, and thus more citation volume, can often lead to less blight and ordinance violations. In turn, this also allows the municipality to put the new revenue source towards communal needs. That potholed mess of a road between Main Street and 8th can finally be repaved. That afterschool program at the municipal building might be able to accept more children. However, at what cost?
When implementing a system, we recommend a balanced approach including a few critical components, with an emphasis on carefully scaling violation amounts, and issuing only after ample warning. First, citizens should be given plenty of time to correct their violations, and should only be fined once they have refused or ignored a warning. The resulting penalties after a grace period, should be stiff, but restrained and scaled. A million dollar homeowner may laugh at a $10 trash violation whereas another homeowner making $10 an hour might have to skip a meal. Therefore, we recommend violations begin with a fine amount based on assessed home value. This allows the fine to fit the offense.
Once that base fine is in place, nonpayment should be viewed as direct noncompliance, and the fine amount should reflect this, increasing as a scaled percentage with delinquency. If another ticket is issued (due to the initial infraction still being uncorrected), that fine basis should reflect the pressure placed on the municipality to correct the infraction.
Finally, if all efforts are ignored by the offender and after a set amount of time, violations should be escalated to a court or collection agency to be legally collected, or other legal action should be taken to correct the infraction.
Sally’s trash has now been outside and piling up for three months to the detriment of surrounding homeowners. She has made the municipality, and thus the same taxpayers that own the homes previously mentioned waste their time in ticketing her, sending her delinquency notices, and finally pressing charges.
She has now cost the community far in excess of the original $5.00 fine. Should she pay more? Of course! Through careful thought and planning, her new fine amount of $200.00 will hopefully provide enough good to the municipality to offset the bad.
So, in our opinion, the debate is over. Spend time dealing with equality in enforcement; take time to implement a scalable system for administration, and then, go out and do it! A beautiful community is one in which things are done for the good of all. Well thought out code enforcement can help a community achieve harmony.