The House Next Door

New property inspection process helping ease crowds in Macon-Bibb Municipal Court

The benches lining the inside of housing court are noticeably less crowded these days.

A year ago, the courtroom was packed with people waiting to explain to the judge why they had not mowed their grass, moved that junk car from their yard or cleaned up the pile of trash.

New ticketing and reinspection regulations approved in March are keeping some code enforcement violations from ending up in Municipal Court.

“If the only violation was high grass and weeds, taking that case to court was often ineffective and inefficient for us,” said John Baker, who oversees the Macon-Bibb Property Maintenance Division. “(The owner) would cut the grass maybe the day before court and then they would come into court and say, ‘I don’t know what this about. I cut the grass.’ It just took three months. The ticket allows us to go ahead and impose a fee much faster.”

Under the old structure, all the code enforcement cases had to go before the judge for a fine to be imposed.

The new fee schedule lets inspectors issue tickets for 35 violations including things such as high grass and weeds, junk cars and debris. These violations account for as much as 40 percent of code enforcement’s workload, Baker said.

“What we have described it as are violations that could be corrected in 10 days or less versus those violations that could take from 30 days to a few months,” he said.

The other big change is a new $35 reinspection fee that’s aimed at improving compliance in fixing bigger problems such as dilapidated siding, holes in the roof and falling-apart porches.

“If we go back out and do a re-inspection and we find that the violations haven’t been corrected, nothing has been done, nobody has contacted us ... the additional option now is we can charge them a reinspection fee of $35 and send them an invoice,” Baker said. “We’re hoping the invoice will cause people to call us and communicate us with what their plans are.”

In theory, any of the code enforcement violations could still end up in Municipal Court, but that process is lengthy and the office is trying to handle the more minor issues quicker.

“It’s when we find out nothing is going to happen, the owner isn’t going to do the work, has admitted that they are not or admitted that it is in foreclosure ... something like that, we’ll go ahead and go straight into court,” Baker said.

COURT NUMBERS FALLING, BUT VIOLATIONS AREN’T

Though the court docket is shrinking, the numbers of violations are not. The office has a little more than 3,000 open cases, and 1,200 of those involve unsafe structures -- buildings that likely need to be torn down.

That number is up from 800 unsafe structures when the former Macon code enforcement office merged with Bibb County last year.

“We think we’ve got all of the old stuff in process, but we’re still finding properties that are unsafe that we’re writing,” Baker said. “And new cases that are coming up because of abandonment and fire ... people leave for one reason or another and the house gets vandalized and becomes an unsafe structure.”

In about a third of the unsafe structure cases, demolition has been approved. The others are still pending in court -- sometimes because they’re awaiting a title search but more often because there are problems locating the owner.

Code enforcement is still required to send the notice of the violation by personal service or certified mail.

“That’s a code requirement, to the last known address,” Baker said. “So even as silly as it may seem, even if the last known address is the address of the property, we still need to send it to that address unless we can find another address. ... Sometimes, unfortunately, the violation address is the only address we can find.”

Notification problems are most common when the owner has died and there is no clear heir or with so-called “zombie” foreclosures -- properties in which the foreclosure process was initiated but not necessarily completed. In those cases, the owners have usually moved out and believe they are no longer responsible for the property, but the bank never completed the foreclosure or filed a new security deed.

“It happened with a lot of the smaller banks when they went under -- you don’t know where to go to try to find the right person to talk to,” said Municipal Court Judge Robert Faulkner, who presides over the housing cases.

The heir property can get even messier.

“You find that 15 or 20 people own the property or are the heirs of Ada Smith and there are 900 Ada Smiths and you can’t figure out who’s who,” Faulkner said. “It’s very difficult. You have to advertise those in the newspaper. It’s a time consuming and a money consuming proposition.”

Then there are still the hardship cases when the property owner simply can’t afford the repairs.

“We know ticketing and re-inspection is not the answer to hardship cases,” Baker said. “But the ticketing and reinspection is aimed at those people we feel just could but won’t, or won’t communicate with us. This is a way to get their attention.”

Faulkner is pleased with the recent Macon-Bibb push to address blight but acknowledges there will always be problems.

“I made the comment before that rather than hit someone with a $300 or $400 fine, I’d like to see them take that $300 or $400 and reinvest it and clean the property up. And some people did that, and some did not. And the ones that did not, I think we have probably fined all of them that we can do.”

To contact writer Debbie Blankenship, call 301-5770 or email blankenship_dr@mercer.edu.

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