All Council members were present. City Manager Berry initially addressed the Council. He stated that this would be an update of work that had been initiated in December 2010. In September 2010, the Council appointed the Rental Property task Force and put them to work, working in conjunction with members of the Hickory Police department and Code Enforcement . They met for a number of meetings and came back to the Council with recommendations. This is a follow up to explain how those recommendations have been implemented.
Reed Baer initially addressed the Council from the podium. He first gave an update regarding the chronic violator ordinance. As an update to the issue of Chronic Violators of the City’s Nuisance Statutes, Mr. Baer pointed out that two property owners at the end of last year (2010-11) accounted for 25 cases. The department projects to have 10 to 12 individuals cited as chronic violators by the end of this fiscal year. Even if these individuals only are responsible for 5 cases a piece that would result in 50 to 60 cases. The North Carolina General Statutes have changed and this has helped in dealing with repeat offenders as stated in Chapter 20 of the Nuisance Ordinance. This ordinance was changed by City Council in October 2010. This year the Department will no longer have to go through the full process of notification in dealing with these chronic violators. Each individual case can take up to 30 days. With the Chronic Offender label, the process becomes expedited. Captain Baer believes that this change of code is working.
There have been 3,182 nuisance cases, 441 Housing cases, and 113 demolitions since the Code Enforcement Unit was established. Of those demolitions, only 4 have been presented to Hickory City Council as to whether to demolish or bring up to code. When looking at Current Open Cases (still in the process), we see that there are 124 cases total, of those 54 are related to minimum housing standard issues and 70 are violations of the nuisance ordinance). That is an average of 41 open cases per the three Code Enforcement Officer. These are not static cases. Cases are getting closed out and opened every day. Currently there are 54 active housing cases and 70 active nuisance cases. Initially, when this program began they were dealing with mostly nuisance cases and now they are dealing with mostly housing cases. He stated that this is related to the economy.
Captain Baer next talked about the issue of Proactive versus Reactive Enforcement. Proactive Enforcement is defined as the Code Enforcement Officers discovering a violation and reporting it. A reactive enforcement issue is when anyone else reports a violation to the Code Enforcement Department. When the program was first initiated in 2008-09, 80% of the cases were of a Proactive nature. That number fell to 25% is 2009-10 and last year (2010-11) it fell to 5%. What has happened is that in the first year the program was new and people in the community didn’t realize its existence. In subsequent years more citizens, along with the police and fire department officials (during routine inspections) have called in and reported issues and violations.
What Code Enforcement is seeing now is a lot of vacant properties. The Western Piedmont Council of Governments has helped Code Enforcement establish the fact that there are approximately 400 empty commercial properties within the city limits of Hickory. Two hundred of these are free standing buildings. When looking at Code Enforcement Issues of Commercial structures versus Residential Structures one sees that in 2011, 30% of the total code enforcement issues that the city faces involve commercial properties, last year (2010-11) that number was 11%, in 2009-10 that number was 6%, and in 2008-09 the number was not tracked, because Mr. Baer stated that issue had not come to mind during the initial stages of the program. What we see is more businesses closing as a result of the economy and people walking away from these properties. We also see absentee owners becoming a big issue with the people who have inherited these properties not realizing the issues with their properties.
Alderman Lail compared the 5% reactive enforcement to the 30% commercial building code violations and asked how citizens would have any idea about what was inside a building and a violation. Capt. Baer stated that it isn’t what is inside the building. It is what is on the outside. The Fire Department also is doing routine 6-month safety inspections and reporting the issues. Alderman Lail stated that this is proactive (Fire Department), because it is City initiated. Alderman Guess rhetorically asked that the Department is no longer able to be reactive, because they have to work on cases that have been reported. Capt. Baer agreed. The other part is with the transition from nuisance cases which take 30 days, the commercial cases can take up to 90 days depending upon the violation.
Captain Baer next got into the issue of the work overload that the Department is facing. He addressed the issue of 9 residential cases and 8 commercial complaints that have been started due to a current lack of resources. This was qualified by stating that there were presently no public safety issues involving these properties. Captain Baer displayed where these properties were located and regarding the commercial units, 6 of the 8 were located on the southern quadrants of the city.
In 2010-11, there were 156 housing cases completed. There are currently six cases ready for presentation to the City Council for resolution. All six cases are residential properties. They are scattered throughout the city, unoccupied, and all are owned by heirs of an estate or absentee property owners. It takes time to chase the owners. It can take six months or more.
When looking at the 782 nuisance cases from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011, one sees that 297 (38%) cases were due to overgrown grass and vegetation, 125 (16%) cases were due to Junk vehicles, and 360 (54%) cases were due to trash and debris. A big issue is that commercial buildings are being cleaned out and the debris is being left outside of the building. Alder Fox asked if the city cleans that up like they do the grass? Captain Baer stated that there is a system in place where they can, but the first step is to contact the property owners and take them through the process. Alder Fox asked about the percentage that have not paid? Capt. Baer answered that collections would have that number. He added that we definitely have property owners who are walking away from their property. Police Chief Adkins addressed the council stating that it was about 5% of the cases where the city has had to abate issues through contractors.
Captain Baer focused on a specific building in presenting an issue that city officials believe could indicate issues for the future involving abandoned commercial properties. The property is the former Southern Desk Building. The case was opened on March 29, 2011. The Fired Department initially reported the structural issues with the building to Catawba County Building Inspections. They saw that there were piles of junk sitting outside of the building. It was initially a nuisance issue. Currently there are over $16,000 in fines that have been assessed against the building. The Power will be cut off to the building on September 6, 2011, because Catawba County has posted the building as unoccupiable and at this time the property will most likely become an HPD Code Enforcement case. The building currently has issues involving graffiti, trash, debris, deteriorated structure, and unsecured premises.
The building owner has done nothing with the nuisance case and they continue to expect that he will operate in the same manner and not abate the issues. Capt. Baer anticipates starting a minimum housing case, because the property is unoccupied empty commercial building.
The trends show that the city will see more of these issues. Alder Patton asked how much it would cost to abate this issue, whether the building owner or the city? Captain Baer stated that estimates to take down and clean up the property are $150,000. Alder Patton then asked about the tax value of the property? Capt. Baer answered $50,000 (Land). The building is pretty much unrecoverable. Alderman Lail asked if this was an issue of the property owner being unwilling or unable to deal with the issue? Capt. Baer stated that they have indications that the property owner is set to declare for bankruptcy.
Alder Fox went into the issue of how this property has been a problem for years. Capt. Baer answered a question from Alderman Guess about how long it will take to deal with the issue by answering that there are laws that allow a quick resolution based upon the severity of the danger.
Alderman Lail stated that in the end that the public is going to have a lien interest, 4 times the property value, in this that is unrecoverable. He stated that he doesn’t know what the city council can do about that. Attorney Crone stated that in a case like this obviously you don’t want to spend $150,000 on a property and find out that it is benefitting a bank or someone else who has priority as far as a lien on the property. There may be a way around that, but we’ve just got to look into it. He says that there is some collaboration, because he is sure there are unpaid taxes (Tax liens) on that building. The property isn’t in foreclosure according to Staff Attorney Arnita Dula and Mayor Wright stated that he is sure that the banks don’t want to foreclose on this property. It was further pontificated that there may not be a banking interest, because the building may be paid off.
Attorney Crone stated that after tonight there will be a title search done on that piece of property. Atty. Dula stated that they have already done a title search on the building and there are no liens on the building.
Capt Baer interjected that not all commercial property issues are gloom and doom. There have been successes, such as the Mongolian BBQ that was on Hwy 70 that was torn down and a new building is going in its place. He also added about the Village Inn Pizzas that burned and restored.
Alder Patton asked about the budget in dealing with this Southern Desk Case ($150,000 for demolition)? There is a line item for demolitions and this property does exceed it for the whole year.
Alderman Meisner asked about boarding the property up for safety nreasons. Capt. Baer stated that it would have to be boarded up to code. The city would also be responsible for monitoring that property to ensure that it remains secured. Alderman Meisner asked about Code Enforcements authority to make this decision to board up or demolish. Capt. Baer stated that the officer with Building Inspector certification does have the authority to make that decision. City Manager Berry interjected that typically this is done by the owner – boarding up. Capt. Baer added yes, if they are able to board it up, but there is a certain level that it has to meet.
Manager Berry spoke of how this sort of property is in Planning Director Brian Frazier’s field of expertise from his previous experiences and this type of property can possibly be used as an industrial park. The reality is that the city is going to be upside down in it. Attorney Crone added that this property may have environmental issues and one of the last things you want to do is buy a piece of property that has environmental issues.
Alder Patton added that one of the things that she has seen in studies, such as Hickory speaks, is how tired these empty industrial buildings make the city look. They just bring everything down. We need to have a big enough budget to take down these eyesores one-by-one. Obviously they have a plan and this would improve the overall appearance and viability of Hickory.
Manager Berry spoke about the Conover Station and redevelopment in speaking about what the city can do if they are willing to take ownership through various processes, because it does open up other avenues for other revenue sources. You can access different pots of grant money that the public doesn’t have access to. The Sothern Desk property is 4 acres.
Alderman Meisner stated that it is just the nature of the beats that these properties are not located in prime areas. We could be sitting on these for 10-20 years. Manager Berry added that in talking with Scott Millar there is a small narrow market out there for internal redevelopment opportunities. Maiden has a site like this. Alderman Meisner then talked about the issues with the Joan’s Fabric building.
Alderman Guess next asked about when the Danger Issue becomes the City’s problem? Manager Berry answered that from tonight it is being brought to attention that it will shortly become our problem. Alder Fox added that this property has been coming our way for years. Unless we begin to cklean up other things that are going on over there, it is going to be very hard to redevelop those 4 acres. In the last two weeks she has had a property and business call about break-ins. We are just dealing in minimums. There are other areas that say, “This is not what we want.” She listens to the West Hickory folks… It’s like, out of sight, out of mind…. Jill is right about the branding initiative. Riddled throughout that book are comments about empty buildings. Just because that is not an area where we all go. That’s not fair to the stable people that live over there and the business owners that live over there. In the long term, $150,000 is not a lot of money.
Alderman Lail spoke to successes along Tate Boulevard and stated that Highland Avenue and down Old Hwy 70 is also an issue and maybe we need to do some redevelopment zones.
Captain Baer answered a question about recommendation for the future of Code Enforcement. Capt. Baer stated that they need more resources including another Code Enforcement Officer. Alderman Guess added a question about how many more officers they needed. Capt. Baer stated that they needed an officer per Police Pact (5 Pact) would be ideal, but anything added to help out with the load would be beneficial. Alder Patton asked about costs of demolition and Capt. Baer stated that it depended on the condition of the building, but the average for residential buildings has been $2,500. These commercial buildings will be significantly more.
Manager Berry expressed that this is the reason why he brought up the issue of Southern Desk, because these issues are going to be more complex and adding an officer isn’t necessarily going to take care of the problems and bring forth a burst of activity. Alder Fox asked if this was the largest commercial property where we currently see multiple problems and Capt. Baer answered yes.
Manager Berry stated that another issue would be, if another officer is hired, current property owners becoming upset about more proactive Code Enforcement and they will be getting calls about why code enforcement officers are giving them such a hard time when they are struggling to make their business run.
Alder Patton interjected if it is a residential building and there are issues, would you like your wife, mother, daughter, or granddaughter living there? When people complain about having to take care of their property that is what you are expected to take care of it and don’t let things slide. Alderman Guess stated that they get plenty of calls from the other (residence) side of it. He wants to move forward with this and add personnel. He understands that there are ramifications to it. It does more positive for the people in neighborhoods. Alder Patton and Alder Fox concurred. Alder Fox talked about the stability of 17th street and how one other property needs to be gotten rid of and it would be a very stable street. The manufacturing problem has been a drag on that end of town. . It isn’t fair to the people that live there.
Mayor Wright stated that he had no other way to judge the backlog of 17 cases. He doesn’t understand what a reasonable amount of caseload would be. We need to commit some money to demolition. Capt. Baer reminded the Mayor that the caseload is not a stagnant 41. There are cases opened and closed every day. The Mayor stated that the backlog of 17 cases is probably about normal isn’t it? A city of our size, we have 3 enforcement officers and a supervisor. Is that not enough. Capt. Baer reminded the mayor that we have two officers and a supervisor. The supervisor handles a full caseload too.
Alder Fox tried to pinpoint when action would be taken to move this process forward. We put this off and we keep looking at these properties and with the current climate, it doesn’t take one or two properties to drag down stable areas. She stated that she would like to have something before us in two weeks.
Manager Berry said it wouldn’t take a lot of time, but he wants to caution that we are moving into a new policy area for the City of Hickory. They have tried to paint the big picture of how these things could ultimately end up. He tends to want to be more cautious when moving into new areas to make sure that you know what you are doing.
Alder Fox asked why we are stepping into new areas when we have this division and obviously they need more help. Manager Berry responded that it is because we have this big building here and obviously it is going to cost more... hundreds of thousands of dollars... to get taken care of and have big legal issues wrapped around in terms of ownership and how they get disposed of. It isn’t as simple as putting another person on the street that takes care of tall grass and junk vehicles. The Manufacturing buildings have more teeth, nuance, and cost involved with them. Alder Fox backed off stating that she guessed the action part of it is about the personnel. Manager Berry added that the personnel issue is all about being able to spend time on the Southern Desk type of case.
Alderman Lail made a point that it isn’t just about work load. It is a matter of all of these big vacant buildings that people aren’t going to do anything with. The mayor interjected that =it isn’t like there is this building and we’re just going to tear it down. There are too many variables involved. Alderman Lail stated that in conversing with Atty Crone that we could potentially set a precedent.
Atty Crone talked about case-by case bases for these issues. Once you own things in the chain, you can’t just indemnify yourself out of it by selling it for a dollar. He went on to talk about the issues of bankruptcy. Council needs all of the facts and data to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Alder Fox said her point is that she has seen the Southern Desk problem for years. If these people need another person give them another person. Manager Berry stated that it isn’t the city’s issue until it crosses that safety boundary etc. It might be an eyesore, but it might be structurally sound. The Mayor finished by saying that ideally if we have to act that we want somebody to have to pay us back. Alderman Guess stated that he sees it as two different issues. Southern Desk stands by itself and it needs to be researched about how we tackle it, but the other issue is that he doesn’t think it is normal to have 17 cases outstanding, that they don’t have enough resources to put forward. You have 17 cases now. How many are you going to have six months from now? It’s two separate issues. The Mayor compared a backlog of 17 cases and stated that in his business they always want a backlog, Alder Fox responded that she doesn’t think they want a backlog of nuisance issues and vacant buildings dragging down otherwise fairly stable streets.
The Hound believes when you ask Manager Berry for an Apple, he’s going to bring out a rotten orange and when you ask him for an orange, he’ll bring you out a rotten apple. People don’t want either. They want what they ask for. Captain Baer and the police force are saying that they are overwhelmed and the stats show that they are overwhelmed. In these times, when the economy stinks to high heavens, It is obvious that they are going to need more help, because there are going to be more issues. Just go ahead and get them another officer.
The issue with Southern Desk isn’t complicated at all. Get the ducks in a row and tear the building down and expedite the process. You can look at that situation and see that it needs to be dealt with and Alder Fox is right that it should have been dealt with long ago. Maybe someone on that Council could get with our local media and explain to the people of this community what a serious issue all of this is. If 10% of those 200 vacant buildings need to be torn down at an average cost of $50,000, then that equals ($50,000 x 20) = $1 million. If it costs another million to facilitate the paper work, then so be it. $2 million to get rid of those buildings that are never going to have a useful purpose again is money well spent.
The mayor’s comments and his history show that he is reluctant to spend money on anything. I understand not being wasteful, but we aren’t talking about waste at this point. What we are talking about is the viability of our city. The Mayor seems like he doesn’t ever want to do anything and Manager Berry carries out those wishes. Like I said, you talk about Southern Desk and he’ll talk about a Code Enforcement Officer. You talk about Code Enforcement Officer. and he’ll talk about Southern Desk. They talk everything to death and run around in circles like a dog chasing its tail. I honestly don’t think anything is going to get done on this issue unless someone steps up and is forceful about moving forward in this process.
I think one of those old manufacturing buildings would be ripe for redevelopment as an amphitheater. Don’t waste the materials. Dismantle the building and recycle what you can to mitigate the costs. Think Camden Yards in Baltimore and how that revitalized the Inner Harbor. What about partnering with Lenoir-Rhyne to revitalize that Highland Avenue Area for use as student apartments and classrooms or to build a bigger arena for athletics?
Don’t give up on manufacturing! We just have to work with others to bring a level playing field as far as fair trade practices, then we need to position ourselves for modern manufacturing in energy, robotics, and other mash up industries that will be formed by future trends. Hey Brad and John Crone. Precedents are a good thing. We were a world leader in manufacturing. We need to be a world leader in setting a precedent of how to get out of this freaking maze we find ourselves in. Sitting on our hands and waiting for others to figure out our problems isn't going to accomplish that.
Or we can continue to talk everything to death and wait until the buildings cave in to deal with the problem and see real estate values continue to plummet and the city continue to sour. I am with those that are ready to take action on this issue. It is time to overthrow those who all too willingly desire to pass the buck down the road. Once again who is going to look out for the younger generations? It seems like the only thing we’re going to be handed down is problems.
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