The Los Alamos County Council has scheduled a discussion regarding the current nuisance code for its Nov. 7 work session. In preparation for that discussion, Council requested that County staff provide detailed information regarding its efforts during the past several months – in order that the conversation next week can be based on the best data.
During the past two Council meetings I have presented such information, and since there has been active conversation regarding the nuisance code within the community, the County Council requested that I share this same information prior to the scheduled work session discussion.
Although my prior presentations have been in the form of a tabular listing of numerical data, that format is not the most conducive to this column and therefore I will attempt to address several of the most common concerns that have been expressed in conversations with the public, during Council meetings, or on social media. The data set itself illustrates our Code Enforcement staff’s activities during the period of May 8 through Sept. 25, 2017, a time frame which represents the initiation of the efforts of two fully-trained staff members through the summer months, and a period during which the majority of weed growth occurs and most home repair activities can be performed.
Concern: “The County has issued over 3,000 citations, which equates to 35 percent of our community having received such notifications.”
Data: During this period, the County has issued 1,005 “notices of violation”, which are not citations into court but instead identify that there are aspects of the property that do not conform with the County’s adopted codes. Each notice refers to a specific code infraction, so if a property has multiple violations then the homeowner may receive multiple notices. Given this fact, the total number of properties which received notices is a further reduced number – a total of 508 (including commercial and residential) – and as far as residences only, a total of 467 properties or approximately 5 percent of households.
Concern: “The County is focused solely on revenue generation, and the code enforcement officers have been given quotas for increasing the number of violations noticed.”
Data: The focus of the code enforcement program has always been upon enhancing the safety and appearance of the community and not on the generation of revenue and/or numbers. Several years ago, when Council directed staff to increase their efforts in this arena, the direction came with certain parameters to how those efforts were performed. Specifically, staff were instructed to focus on compliance rather than penalties. During the period noted previously, out of the total 1,005 notices of violation (or 508 total properties), only 45 of these cases have ended up in Municipal Court. The remainder have all been rectified through the efforts of landowners, many of which have consulted County staff to discuss necessary/alternative solutions to their individual issues. Further, of the 45 cases referred to court, only one of these cases has resulted in penalties assessed by the court, with the remainder resulting in resolution of the noted violations. The fees/fines collected for the 45 cases totals $2,774, an amount that would never cover the expenses associated with the program. As for quotas, there simply are none.
Concern: “The Code Enforcement officers are trespassing upon my property and violating my rights.”
Data: Again, Council set parameters at the initiation of this program that directed staff to limit their enforcement to issues that were visible from the street / public space. All notices of violation include the pictures taken by our code enforcement officers and clearly illustrate that the perspective is from that of any other citizen in the public right of way.
Concern: “The County has pursued an aggressive campaign to address code issues that is far beyond the activities other communities engage in.”
Data: Staff polled more than 15 cities and counties in the state to see how our program compares to other jurisdictions, and generally found our practices to be around the average of what other local governments are engaged in. The comparison illustrated that typically Counties are not as active in code enforcement as cities (with the exception of noxious weeds) and that Los Alamos County behaves more like the comparator cities than counties. This is not unexpected as the level of services for our incorporated government structure is more comparable to cities, yet even in comparison to other cities our code enforcement activities are somewhat in the middle of the road. The one comparison for which we were an outlier had to do with our weed enforcement, as every other jurisdiction sampled had a more restrictive allowable height for weeds. Where Los Alamos County code allows growth to 18” before being considered a violation, the highest growth allowed by any other city or county was 12”, with the majority allowing 0” (per the focus on noxious weeds).
Concern: “The ability to make anonymous reports of infractions is counterproductive in that it creates discord within neighborhoods, instead neighbors should discuss concerns with one another.”
Data: My goal here is to present facts, and where this concern involves opinions and perspective on community relationships I will not provide comment, however I did ask staff to try to research the number of anonymous reports of code violations. This information was not specifically tracked so the only available information is that during the previously noted period, there were a total of 49 complaints received by the County. The remainder of all noticed violations were a result of the two code enforcement officers’ observations of violations. While this information is not precise as to the actual number of anonymous complaints, it does illustrate that if all 49 complaints were anonymous, the use of such ability to anonymously report has been very small relative to the total number of noticed violations. With respect to the prior section regarding comparison to other jurisdictions, of the 13 responses received on this subject, all but two allowed anonymous complaints.
The reports provided to Council included a variety of other statistics that the community may find interesting, including a breakdown of all notices of violation by type as well as the observations regarding how our program compares to that of other jurisdictions. Given that space is limited here, please refer to the County’s web site at: www.losalamosnm.us/code_enforcement_statistics to view each of these tables.
Finally, please note that the Nov. 7 work session (during which this subject is scheduled to be discussed) has been moved from its typical White Rock location to Council Chambers in the Municipal Building in Los Alamos, as the room can accommodate more attendees and also has a better system for broadcasting video of the conversation (available via streaming or PAC-8). The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. and is an opportunity for community members to express their thoughts about the County’s code enforcement efforts.