Demand for community service cuts litter on Macon streets

jgaines@macon.comAugust 31, 2013 

Late last year, Judge Robert Faulkner told Macon officials that the number of people asking Municipal Court for community service hours instead of fines had increased fivefold.

He was looking for more places to send people charged with minor offenses. Faulkner attributed the surge to the lingering effects of the nationwide recession: more and more people qualified for community service because they simply couldn’t afford fines, to which the only other alternative was jail.

Faulkner said he was already sending some people to the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, but that just about any apolitical nonprofit organization could qualify to get workers for something as simple as sweeping offices.

Macon took note. The city wasn’t sure at first it could use many workers due to liability concerns, especially if they were expected to use much equipment, Mayor Robert Reichert said. But at the same time, the city was “pummeled” with complaints about roadside litter.

“We asked Steve Lawson if he would be willing to try to use community service workers and pick up the litter,” Reichert said. “That program has had phenomenal results.”

Lawson, grounds superintendent for the parks division of Public Works, said litter pickup didn’t involve much more equipment than a caution vest and a pointed stick. So since Jan. 26, teams of community service workers have been cleaning up streetscapes all over town. That’s a prerequisite for mowing.

In the past seven months, 692 workers have picked up 33 tons of trash, he said.

“We have some people that have been with us for the whole entire program,” Lawson said. “There are a lot of people out there that have over 200 hours of community service that they need to wipe out.”

Most of that work is done on Saturdays, when two vanloads -- an average of 26 workers -- go from a central meeting place to wherever substantial litter has been reported: Rocky Creek Road, Eisenhower Parkway, Bloomfield Drive, Anthony Road, Riverside Drive, Emery Highway, Shurling Drive, Interstate 16 and 75 interchanges, and many others. That’s even included tires and a washing machine on Houston Road, according to Lawson’s records.

Crews can work a morning, afternoon or full eight-hour shift, with an hour off for lunch. Workers can also help on weekdays, but most are only available on Saturday.

“Most of these people have jobs,” Lawson said.

Municipal Court rules say anyone charged with city ordinance violations -- such as traffic offenses or housing code infractions -- or misdemeanor state crimes such as drunken driving or driving without a seat belt could do community service, if they prove they can’t afford a fine. The length of service, and a deadline for completing it, is set by the judge. Cases before Municipal Court carry a basic $15 cost, while listed fines run from $10 for overstaying a two-hour parking limit to $830 for driving on a suspended license.

Workers are considered volunteers, and they can leave at any time -- which some do, Lawson said. But if they leave or won’t work, they don’t get credit for service hours.

“If they miss that appointment with me, then Judge Faulkner will deal with them by giving them time (in jail) instead of probation or a fine,” Lawson said.

Saving money

Faulkner has said the greater demand for community service work has reduced Municipal Court’s fine collection, but Lawson said it’s saving the city lots of money. The litter collection program will cost about $20,000 a year, but having crews of paid city workers do the same would take about $100,000, he said.

Tracy Kight, executive director of the American Red Cross of Central Georgia, could have told the city that community service workers could provide valuable help. The Red Cross was already using them when she arrived five years ago, but only one or two at a time. That’s still the case, but their work has become more valuable since the Red Cross had to cut staff, Kight said.

“We rely solely on donations, so when those decrease, of course, our revenue decreases, and we have to adjust our expenses.”

Still, it’s only “now and then” that someone will call 478-743-8671 to ask if they can perform their service work at the Red Cross, Kight said.

“They’ve done anything from facilities maintenance ... to basic administrative tasks,” she said. “They’re a huge help during the holidays.”

Some people have only had to work off a few hours, and some have been at the Red Cross for weeks, Kight said. Community service workers would also be welcome in the agency’s Dublin and Warner Robins offices, she said.

“It’s been successful. It’s been a positive partnership,” Kight said. “They work hard when they’re here, and I’m comfortable and confident in continuing to accept community service workers.”

On a few weekends the city litter crews have been rained out, but they’ve done other work too, Lawson said. On Feb. 23, they bagged 1,200 cherry trees for the Cherry Blossom Festival, and at the festival itself, they cleaned restrooms in place of Public Works employees. That worked fine, and community service workers could be used at other civic festivals, Lawson said.

Seeing crews collecting trash on the roadside may inhibit others from littering, and the workers themselves are now suggesting spots to clean. Lawson and Reichert said they’ve both heard remarks about improved appearances of road rights of way, but they think the workers’ impact is probably greater than people consciously notice.

“The absence of a problem is not as easily detected as the presence of a problem,” Reichert said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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