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Lodi Police Department escalates war on blight

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Posted: Thursday, September 20, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 10:50 am, Wed Jan 30, 2013.

It might seem like just a broken window in a vacant home or a junk car in the front yard, but Lodi officials know neighborhood blight is a clue that points toward something more sinister.

The signs of a run-down neighborhood can foster crime and gang activity, Police Chief Mark Helms said, which is why the city is devoting more resources to its code enforcement department.

Soon, Lodi will hire a full-time officer to handle all calls and a part-time officer devoted specifically to deterring gang violence.

The part-time officer will be hired through the California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention grant Lodi received in March. The two-year grant gives the city $250,000 to both start and continue a variety of programs to reduce gang violence in Lodi by 25 percent.

"Gang members and gang families typically occupy rental properties, so this would be working with the landlord to clean up the property," Helms said. "We have a great tool fighting crime with code enforcement."

The Lodi City Council signed off on increasing code enforcement's reach in the community at a shirtsleeves earlier this month.

Mayor JoAnne Mounce, who lives on the Eastside, said there is a clear connection between blight and the increase of crime and drugs.

"(Blight) fosters the grounds for crime to hide and grow. If you clean up the neighborhood, you do not have the crime that you would have because you are sending a message that their business is not wanted here," she said.

Since 2010, there has only been one code enforcement officer and a part-time administrative clerk.

Currently, the one officer responds to calls as diverse as basketball hoops in the street, unpermitted car covers, vehicles in a yard covered with tarps, broken windows in a foreclosed home, a collapsed garage, an excavated basement or hoarders with so much trash it becomes a safety issue.

The two new employees are needed to help deal with a 35-percent increase in code enforcement calls since 2008, Helms said.

In 2011, there were 971 Code Enforcement cases, including 554 for nuisances, 214 for substandard or dangerous housing issues and 203 for zoning.

"We prioritize," Helms said. "Our two staff members take the information and find out what needs the greatest attention at that time. They are struggling to keep up with the workload."

One of the main increases has been in calls related to empty homes, which in many cases are bank-owned. The calls are often for vandalism like broken windows, which can lead to transients living in the home, or property maintenance issues.

Those types of calls are concerning, Mounce said, because they can lead to other problems in neighborhoods.

"Those are the things that deteriorate a neighborhood visually. Those are the kind of things that will foster gangs. If there are two windows unbroken, they will break them. If there are items in the front yard, they will pull them out in the street or set them on fire," she said.

Currently, members of the Lodi Police Partners have helped ease the workload by frequently inspecting vacant properties.

The volunteer organization, made up mostly of retirees, also helps with checking businesses to make sure they have parking stalls for people with disabilities, handling towing of abandoned vehicle, responding to people who file complaints, taking photos of property and following up on nuisance complaints that include trash cans in view, debris or cars in a yard.

Councilman Bob Johnson questioned whether the city should look at raising the initial $100 fine for code enforcement issues, hoping to lead to quicker compliance. He said that, for example, someone who rents out a home in Lodi but lives in another city might not care what happens in town.

Mounce commented that she has especially noticed that problem on the Eastside where some of the apartments are owned by property management partnerships with post office boxes.

"(City employees) are challenged all the time to get someone to respond to their issues, and as a result we have apartments on Locust (Street) that are just disgusting and riddled with gang properties," Mounce said.

Staff explained that when someone receives a citation and refuses to comply or pay it, it gradually increases and can reach around $1,300. After several attempts to contact the person with no response, the citation is sent to collections.

City Attorney Steve Schwabauer said he often receives calls from people once it goes to collections because they are concerned about their credit history. But there is a group of people who are "credit proof." Those type of people do not use credit or own property and do not have the money to pay the fines, Schwabauer said.

The addition two officers will also allow the police department to be more proactive in enforcement, Helms said. Starting in 1996, the department mainly focused on responding to calls, but this will allow the department to target problem areas.

Council members also verbally agreed to change the name of the department from Community Improvement to Code Enforcement. Helms said the name is confusing because a majority of people ask for a Code Enforcement Department when they call the city.

Another suggestion from the council was that the Code Enforcement Department choose some problem areas and do a sweep using additional officers. Helms said the council would then likely get phone calls from people feeling that Code Enforcement personnel are being overly aggressive.

City manager Rad Bartlam said the public usually views code enforcement from one of two perspectives.

"We get complaints on both sides of the spectrum," Bartlam said. "Some say you are doing too much, and some say you are not doing enough."

Councilman Larry Hansen said he would rather see the department targeting problems than holding back because of public perception.

"If we can get a team together and go out and do a sweep, I'm fine with getting the phone calls," he said.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com. Read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/citybuzz.

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