Cleanup time

Aldermen bristle at problem properties

Springfield aldermen say it's time to get tougher on scofflaws who don't mow lawns, clean up garbage and otherwise ignore ordinances aimed at keeping the city looking nice.

A proposal sponsored by Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer would hit offenders with fines even if they clean up their acts before administrative court dates. Too often, Hanauer and other aldermen say, cases are dismissed with no fines when property owners hit with citations show that whatever landed them in court was rectified prior to appearances before a city hearing officer.

"They call it 'voluntary compliance,'" Hanauer says. Under the alderman's proposal, if a violation isn't fixed within seven days of a property owner receiving a citation, fines would be automatic, with a $150 sanction on the first offense if the problem isn't fixed within a week. On the second offense, four days would be allowed before a higher mandatory fine, perhaps $300, kicked in. On the third offense, the fine would be $500, no matter what. Even if the issue were resolved as soon as a citation was issued, the property owner still would be fined.

"We've got people who cut their yard only when we tell them they have to cut their yard," Hanauer said. "People will leave garbage on the side of the house only until we tell them they have to get rid of it."

Hanauer declined to provide a draft of his proposal prior to Tuesday's committee-of-the-whole council gathering, saying it was in the corporation counsel's office for fine tuning. He acknowledged that some questions remain questions. For example, if a property owner corrects problems, should the reset button be pressed after 90 days or should automatic fines for subsequent offenses kick in as long as 180 days after the first citation is satisfactorily addressed?

"We still have some things we need to get ironed out," Hanauer said. "I think we'll get it passed next week."

Bill Baskett, president of the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association and chairman of the problem properties committee for Inner City Older Neighborhoods (ICON), said that he supports the goal. "We're finding with many, many people, 'I just fixed it yesterday,'" Baskett says. "That's not good enough anymore."

Baskett says that Hanauer has declined invitations to meet with ICON, via Zoom if necessary, about concerns. And ICON, he says, has concerns about a draft of the ordinance that would allow landlords to escape fines if they've been denied access to problem properties by tenants. "He refused to meet with us," Baskett says. "We're the ones who are most impacted."

Baskett says that any measure that allows property owners to escape fines on the premise that tenants wouldn't allow access to fix problems has potential to undercut goals. Baskett, also, has been tracking administrative court proceedings for three years and has found that the majority of cases are either dismissed or postponed. According to Baskett's spreadsheet, the ward with the fewest issues is Hanauer's, where just four cases were considered last year. Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory needed just one guess when asked which ward has had the most cases in administrative court, as tracked by Baskett.

With 133 cases last year, Ward Two leads the pack in administrative court, according to Baskett's calculations, and has done so for three years running. Gregory said that he agrees with Hanauer's goal. "In my opinion, in order for this community to move forward and attract business, it has to look better," Gregory said. But the alderman says that fines aren't always appropriate.

"We have to remember: We have some very poor individuals in our community," Gregory said. "Fining them all the time is not the answer." Particularly in the case of seniors with low incomes, Gregory said that the city should consider allowing code violators to satisfy obligations via community service instead of monetary penalties. "We have a portion of our community that's older and can't quite get rid of the stuff," the alderman says.

Gregory, also, is sponsoring a measure that would require people cited for garbage on their property to produce proof, via receipts from a waste hauler or from a legal disposal site, that garbage was legally eliminated instead of fly-dumped. He said the measure is one proposal of several that he is planning to address garbage issues, including steps the city should take to ensure waste haulers are properly licensed. "I'm not done with it yet," Gregory said. "I've got a bunch of things to address."

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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