WMPD says clean up or pay up!
Police Department raising fines, increasing enforcement for illegal dumping, junk cars and more
Improving the looks in the city of West Memphis has been a concern for city council members. Junk cars, illegally dumped tires, and overgrown lots contribute to blight in the city.
The Public Works and Police Commissions held a joint meeting with police administration to explore what could be done.
The alderman were delighted with a proposed plan that multiplied code enforcement hours and increased incentives to private property owners to clean up through higher fines.
Only one code enforcement officer had been on patrol. His duties included filling in for the district court bailiff and security at city hall. That officer reported to city planner Paul Luker who ordered overgrown lots to be mowed and property owners to be billed.
“We are making a change to having the police completely take over code enforcement,” announced City Councilwoman and Public Works Chairwoman Ramona Taylor. Police Chief Donald Oakes took the bull by the horns and outlined code enforcement
strategy aimed at keeping West Memphis beautiful.
“We will do this in phases, cars, the tires and grass when it comes into season,” said Oakes. “We’ve started with cars.”
The Chief knew how to put the carrot out in front of the horse. Meaningful sized fines would provide the incentive to many property owners to keep their lots clean. The chief also had a heart for the code violators and wanted to provide a notice and give folks a chance to clean it up before enforcement began in earnest. “We need to increase the fines,” said Oakes. “We are sending notices now that include information about the fines in place. We will probably have a lot of voluntary cooperation just because we’ve noticed. Two weeks later we will go back with a warning saying you will be cited, then the ticket.”
The warning letter suggested remedies to the property owners hoping to make clean-up options more apparent according to Captain Joe Baker.
“We are hoping for compliance,” said Baker.
“When we put the letters out we listed which wrecker services would tow away the vehicles for free.
We included a list of ten wreckers working for just the value of the scrap.”
Just how bad is the junk car problem? Captain Joe Baker said the department has surveyed a quarter of the city, started a spread sheet to track violation status and to line out warning letters and to document to a judge the process from notice to warning to citation.
Police started their city wide code enforcement canvas in the northeast part of town.
“We’ve issued 140 notices at 103 residences,” said Baker. “A significant amount of residences have multiple vehicles there. We have been utilizing our patrol
The chief admitted code enforcement has been lax which has allowed junk to pile up.
“Quite honestly we haven’t enforced codes,” said Oakes. “We don’t want to punish people that start to try and do things right, so hopefully we give them enough time.”
“This first letter was a pretty friendly letter,” said Baker. “We want to help them and thought giving them the list of free resources to move the car would help them.”
So much for the carrot, Captain Baker moved on to the big stick of heavier fines. The newly suggested code fines come at an opportune time. Every fee and fine in the city is being examined as part of a new standard of codes.
“Before we try to tackle all the ordinances that will be hard to re-write, we should look at the fines and fee amounts that are going to make people want to comply with the codes,” said Baker.
First offenses at residences for old cars, tires and unkempt grass start at $100, second offense fines are $250 and third offenses climb to $1,000.
“If we go to a fourth offense in a 12 month time, these people have no intention of complying,” said Baker. “At that point we have put a lot of time and attention on the violation.
$1,000 is as high as we can go for a class A misdemeanor.”
For midnight dumpers who trash other people’s property the proposed fines escalate even quicker with $550 on the first offense and $1000 for any second offense.
‘There are two codes we think are worth more,” said Baker. “Dumping in ditches and streams, that is our illegal dumping ordinance, and dumping on another person’s property – that is more serious,” said Baker.
Chief Oakes said the penalties for illegal tire dumping needed to be higher than the cost of legitimate tire disposal.
Keep West Memphis Beautiful Charwoman, Councilman Lorraine Robinson, saw the benefits of greater fines but wondered if illegal dumpers could actually be caught.
Chief Oakes said the answer was in training the patrol force. “Part of our goal is to use all our policemen instead of just the one code enforcement officer,” said Oakes.
“We haven’t trained an officer in code enforcement since we moved the officer out of our department and into community development. We hope to train so everybody that when they see a truck riding around full of junk, they’ll follow it, wonder where it went, when they see it empty and track it down. Or mechanics working in their yard violating permit or zoning, they need to say maybe I should look at him tomorrow and see if he is working on another car to see if he is running a business.
We have 80 patrolmen that we have not been utilizing.”
The police department hoped the increased focus and the proposed elevated fines would go a long way to cleaning up the city.
“Our goal is, I hope everybody moves their cars and cuts their grass,” said Oakes. “When we give them a letter that says next time it’s this much and the time after that this much — that should persuade them to comply.”
The joint police commission and public works commission referred the recommendation to the city attorney to be included in the reworking future code ordinances. That ordinance was tabled at the last city council meeting hoping for new fines an fee schedule for city codes in the next 90 days.
By John Rech