Newton explores ways to tackle nuisances

What kind of impression does Newton leave on residents and visitors as they enter the city?

According to one city council member, nothing too positive.

"Coming down N.C. 16 from Conover, the first thing you see is a house on that corner that looks terrible," Council Mary Bess Lawing said of a residence where used and abandoned child toys and refuse fill the property. "People coming through town, wherever they are coming from, they come in and see dilapidated property or property that needs tender, loving care, and they think, 'What kind of city is this?'"

Lawing isn't the only person voicing concern about appearance standards and violations of the city's nuisance codes.

"In the summer a lot of it is tall grass, but year-round there are abandoned cars and junk, breeding rats and unhealthy situations — just general nastiness," said Newton Mayor Robert Mullinax. "I tell folks you can't legislate somebody to be a good neighbor, but we have ordinances that prohibit certain things. ... Go anywhere in town, and it is just a mess."

To combat those problems, Newton City Manager Todd Clark suggested the city explore hiring a full-time person to complete code enforcement within the city. Currently, Newton Police Department's Animal Control officer also completes code enforcement work.

In 2010, that officer helped bring 181 code violation cases into compliance, Clark said, adding 194 violations were investigated. There are five cases that are non-compliant, two in the process of becoming compliant and one case of non-compliance where the owner was arrested.

"Of those 181 (brought into compliance), 136 were resolved in compliance within 15 days; 40 within 30 days; three within 45; one case took 60 days; and another case took 75 days," Clark said.

That officer also responded to 660 animal control complaints, he said.

"In my opinion, that is an overload," Clark said. "We need to start talking about employing a full-time person for this position."

A full-time code enforcement officer might also be certified to complete building inspections, so that enforcement of city codes could extend beyond nuisance ordinances, into those governing minimum housing and occupancy standards, he said.

Mullinax said he doesn't "have a problem with that."

"We have more code violations than that (181 investigated) in the city of Newton," he said. "That man is trying to answer 660 stray dog or cat or snake calls. He doesn't have time to be a code enforcement guy."

During Friday morning's Newton City Council planning retreat, Mullinax, Lawing and Newton Mayor Pro Tem Anne Stedman pushed for more stringent code enforcement, but other leaders seemed reluctant.

"(With) times the way they are, you think we need to hire somebody full-time?" asked Council member Wayne Dellinger who hinted that once code enforcements begin, if a Council member "has people who have a violation," those elected officials hear complaints from their friends and "back-off" enforcement.

Council member Bill Lutz suggested an alternative of creating a volunteer group of citizens to work on code enforcement as a committee, while Council member Robert Abernethy Jr. voiced concern about the cost.

"The way our budget looks, my No. 1 concern with hiring someone else to do code enforcement is that you are going to end up with an extra employee," he said. "What if in three or four years, they have done such a good job, the majority of things are handled ... we get this cleaned up, and then have an extra employee, and we have to fight to keep their job."

Glenn Pattishall confirmed that previously the city had a code enforcement person, and they "did a good job of getting things straightened up." After that priorities shifted and the employee's duties were altered toward soil erosion control and planning department needs.

Further, Dellinger pointed out that even with a code enforcement employee, there are limits to what the city can do.

"There are situations that aren't good, but you can only go so far in telling people how they can live. People live different ways," he said.

"We are looking at the way people should live, rather than the way they do live. How far can you legislate that?"

Still, Lawing said people can be "clean."

"There is no disgrace in being poor, but there is disgrace in not keeping things clean," she said. "You can keep it clean, and you can keep it looking nice. You can protect the other neighbors who do all they can to keep their place clean. You are depreciating their property, and it becomes unsafe for their children to go out and play."

The city's mayor said that Newton leaders would "deal with this" during the budget process.

"In the mean time, you (code enforcement) guys just keep doing the best you can," Mullinax said.