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Property maintenance issues at top of City Council agenda

By Jonathan Pleasant
Having reviewed the city’s policy in depth, property maintenance issues were the hot topic at last week’s Mountain City Town Council meeting. Alderman Jerry Jordan was the first to bring up the problem several months ago, noting numerous complaints from residents about overgrown lots and deteriorating vacant buildings. While there is a policy already in place, the big initial concern was the lack of sufficient penalties to enforce the ordinance. As a result, the council asked city attorney Steve McEwen to look into possible changes or additions that could be made to give the city more teeth on the issue.
The current procedure is to send out a city police officer to look at and document property maintenance complaints. If the officer determines there is a sufficient problem, City Recorder Sheila Shaw then sends out a letter asking that the issue be corrected. In the majority of cases this is as far as officials have to go, but Jordan and many of the other city leaders are concerned about the small number of violations that continue regardless of repeat warnings.
McEwen was able to create an update to the city’s regulations that would provide the town with several options in enforcement. In particularly troublesome locations the city could utilize their employees to do the work, either through cleaning up or mowing, and the cost would then be charged to the property owner. Such action could only be taken after fulfilling a specific due process, which includes not only notification but also an appeal process, but once these requirements were met the fees could even be filed as a lien against the property.
However, McEwen did confirm that a lien could only be used in the more extreme cases where the cost was $500 or more. For those who are uncooperative in smaller situations, the city could still fine a $50 daily penalty or even add the cost to property owner’s taxes. While such measures being available would almost certainly help as a deterrent, the council reiterated their firm belief that these efforts would only be used in a handful of situations.
Agreeing that something had to be done, the council debated the next action on McEwen’s suggestions. To change the ordinance would require a first reading as well as a public hearing. While some members of the council felt ready to approve the first step, Mayor Lawrence Keeble expressed his desire to see the public hearing first and then a first reading, to give the council a better indicator of support or opposition to the changes. With no opposition to this request, the council agreed to set the public hearing for next month’s meeting.
The other controversial subject of the evening was a discussion of continued problems at Ralph Stout Park. Despite posting new rules and regulations, council members have still received numerous complaints about profanity, alcohol, and vandalism, among other issues. Some recent violations have been serious enough to involve potential criminal charges, leaving city leaders to question what steps to take next.
Already cameras are being installed that will hopefully help in identifying some of the bigger offenses, but the council also looked at the possibility of banning repeat offenders as well. City Attorney McEwen confirmed that once the posted rules are broken an individual could be asked to leave. If they return after that point the violator could then be charged with trespassing. The continued problems have been on the council’s mind for the past several meetings, leaving Mayor Keeble to explain that he has some “bold proposals” to suggest possibly at next month’s meeting.
The one concrete change that the council made at this meeting was to look at the problem of yard sales being held in the park. Former local businessman Casey Dorenbusch originally requested to hold a community yard sale at the park several years ago. While the council did agree at that time, sellers began returning each week, eventually growing beyond the original intentions. Now interfering with park activities on the weekends as well as leaving behind significant amounts of trash, the council unanimously agreed that the sales must to stop altogether.
Mayor Keeble brought up several strong points in his address to the board, beginning with a look at the city’s policy concerning sewer taps at the Red Tail Mountain Golf Course. Several years ago, the previous board moved to allow as many as 100 taps on the facility’s grounds. However, having just come out of a moratorium placed by the state, city leaders are now worried about their system’s capacity and the impact that the additions at the course could have.
Keeble specifically expressed his desire to see Red Tail do well and his own belief that the city would work with the facility’s new owners, but also explained that there are other, lower income and much more necessary locations outside the city that should be looked at as well. Keeble went on to say that he would welcome Red Tail to add as many taps as they need, but only if they could finance the cost on the city’s system including the line and the expansion on the current sewer plant.
Alderman Bob Morrison, who sat on the council that made the decision to approve the taps back in 2006, agreed that under the current circumstances there is simply no way that the city could afford to give up so much capacity. Agreeing, Alderman Jerry Jordan made the successful motion to rescind the former council’s decision, pending Red Tail’s willingness to pay for the necessary improvements to include the additional taps.
The other item that Keeble presented was a suggestion for safety improvements concerning the pedestrian crosswalks at Mountain City Elementary. Although two crosswalks currently exist, Keeble explained that he had been in discussion with Police Chief Denver Church who also felt they were not adequately used. To rectify the problem the mayor suggested the installation of crosswalk signs and possible improvements to add curbing at the school so that vehicles would only use the entrance and exit.
Public works director Bob Eller confirmed that both of these actions could be taken, but that the city would need to work with the school system for their approval. Keeble concluded by noting that the crosswalks are a serious safety issue, pointing out that currently people cross the street at all angles while moving through busy traffic especially in the mornings and evenings when school is starting and letting out.
As a member of the city planning commission, the mayor also proposed a new building permit fee schedule that had already been approved by that board. Looking at what other cities and counties in the region charge for their building inspections, Keeble found that Mountain City had one of the highest scales. As a result the planning commission decided to take an average of what most other local governments were charging and apply it to Mountain City as well.
Although the changes only affect residential building, depending on the cost of the construction this still means significant decreases in inspection fees for some new construction projects, and will hopefully help encourage new development. Alderman Jerry Jordan made the motion to accept the planning commission’s recommendation which passed unanimously.
Most other items that the council looked at were resolved without conflict. The only other serious debate came from a request to repair a malfunctioning air-conditioning unit at the city fire hall. At just over $5,000 to repair, the council looked at ways to come up with the money without having to approve a budget amendment. Having just passed this year’s budget, city leaders were hoping to hold the line on the town’s finances, but were left with few options. Looking at taking money out of the department’s escrow account, Chief Gary Stout explained that the money was set aside for a new engine, which would be a necessary purchase in the next couple of years. With no other suggestions, the board was forced to make a decision to amend the budget $5,750 to make the repairs. Concluding the lengthy business of the evening, a motion was eventually made to adjourn.