City department heads say money tight for clean up

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 14, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; With the city seeking an economic development boost &045; from tourists and new industries &045; such eyesores as litter, overgrown lots, and abandoned houses and vehicles can put a damper on the ability to attract visitors.

So what is the city’s role in cleaning up the mess?

It’s the job of the city’s Planning Department to enforce ordinances, a set of regulations designed to address the problems of dilapidated buildings, overgrown lots, abandoned vehicles and the like.

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The department doesn’t &uot;target&uot; specific areas for enforcement; instead, planning staffers respond to complaints and ride around town themselves to spot eyesores, said City Planner Bob Jackson.

That can be a full-time job &045; and is for city Code Enforcement Officer Artemis Evans. On a recent day, for example, Evans had 10 such matters to address, and Jackson added two more.

But the number of complaints isn’t high enough to overwhelm the Planning Department, Jackson said. In fact, he said, getting such calls can be a good thing, in that &uot;it shows people are paying attention to what’s going on.&uot;

Once a complaint is received, there are legal hoops through which planning must jump to get the problem resolved.

For example, in the case of overgrown grass, the property owner is told by certified letter he has 10 days to correct the problem.

That’s sometimes the only way to get in touch with property owners, since about 60 percent of those with which planning deals live out of town.

If the property isn’t cleaned up within that time, Jackson or Evans can ask the Board of Aldermen to approve the city’s cutting of the lot. And the city charges $100 an hour plus a 25-percent penalty to cut overgrown lots.

The process for addressing abandoned vehicles is simpler. Evans or a law enforcement officer place a notice sticker on a vehicle that is obviously abandoned &045; up on blocks, lying in a yard or along a street, without a current tag or sticker, for example.

If the problem isn’t corrected within the number of days posted on the sticker, the vehicle is towed &045; and the owner must pay the towing fee.

In the case of buildings that are obviously abandoned and in disrepair, the city notifies the owner by certified letter to secure the property &045; for example, by boarding up points of entry.

Ideally, an owner would take steps to fix such a property, but in many cases that structure is dilapidated because the owner doesn’t have the money to fix it, Jackson pointed out.

In severe cases, the city’s Inspection Department can ask the Board of Aldermen to declare the building condemned.

&uot;Often, the owner doesn’t have the resources to have it demolished, so the city will move in&uot; and do the work for him, said Building Inspector Paul Dawes.

The cost of that demolition will be attached to the property owner’s taxes and, if those aren’t paid, the matter goes to state authorities for action.

As far as demolition itself is concerned, Dawes said, &uot;We used to do more of it in the past, but now that the city’s funds are getting tight, we aren’t doing it as much. Š We’re in a world of hurt financially.&uot;

Public Works Director Richard Burke can second that. The city received a $25,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Quality to clean up illegal dumpsites in the city.

About $6,000 to $7,000 of that was used to clean up a site adjacent to the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center.

But Burke said that, due to city budget cuts and $90,000 from his budget being used to fix a sinkhole in front of the Canal Street post office earlier this year, he had to lay off five workers.

That, he said, means he doesn’t have enough workers to clean up further sites, although he’s asking for the five positions to be reinstated for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Burke said the workers he does have spend most of their time on cutting grass and maintaining streets.

&uot;We just don’t have the resources to get to them,&uot; Burke said, referring to the dumpsites.