They also agree cost is greater if city doesn't act.
Yards full of garbage and debris. Junk cars that remain parked for what seems like an eternity. Exterior home improvement projects that never seem to be completed. Campers and construction trailers parked on streets for months at a time. People operating businesses in residential zoning districts.
Those are just a handful of the types of complaints directed at city council members and city staff every year, complaints that trigger yet another discussion at a council committee meeting on how to better enforce the city's ordinances already on the books that are supposed to address such out-of-compliance properties and violating home and property owners.
At Monday evening's Crookston City Council Ways & Means Committee meeting, the topic was discussed once again – to the chagrin of a couple council members who are sick of all the talk not resulting in much action. But this time, there appears to be a willingness to not necessarily put more teeth in existing ordinances, but put more teeth in the city's approach to enforcing city codes, especially when some property owners seem intent on perpetually violating them.
But, City Attorney Chuck Fitzgerald and retiring Community Development Director Mike MacDonald stressed to council members, doing so is going to cost money. And maybe not just a little bit of money. There are legal costs and potential litigation, for one thing, and increased enforcement requires more staff time and resources as well. Although council members on Monday didn't commit to any specific, additional costs, the fact that everyone seemed at least OK with the notion that it would be a wise investment of dollars if it resulted in a cleaner community counts as a significant step forward from previous discussions that seemed to never get off square one.
"Code enforcement is always tough," Fitzgerald said. "It's a cost/benefit thing the council will have to go through, to figure out how important is it in relation to the rest of the things you're already spending money on."
But Fitzgerald agreed with Ward 1 Council Member Tom Jorgens' contention that if the city doesn't expend the necessary resources to better enforce ordinance violations related to the condition of properties around town, there is still a cost, perhaps an even greater cost. Maybe a family can't sell their house because it's surrounded by junky homes and yards. Or maybe a house in such a predicament sells for less than it should. Maybe new people don’t move here.
"There are real costs to not doing something," Jorgens said. "The costs of doing nothing are huge."
Most complaints directed at city hall, city staff or city council members are made by Crookston residents, most of whom are complaining about the condition of a neighbor's property or properties in their neighborhood. With the Crookston Fire Department heavily involved in twice-yearly city-wide sweeps of properties and often the first to follow up on complaints, Fire Chief Tim Froeber said there are some instances when the city's hands are tied.
"If your neighbor's house has a lot of chipped paint, we can't tell someone they have to paint their house," he said. "Or it's your definition of junk. We get calls about a yard full of junk and we go there to take a look and it's kids' toys and bikes, not junk. It looks messy, but we can't go to the door and tell them to get their kids to pick up their stuff. There's a difference between junk like old appliances and raw garbage...and just stuff."
MacDonald said if it's the council's intention to ramp up enforcement efforts, the city's current budgeting priorities would need to be shifted. At Large Council Member Wayne Melbye said the 2013-14 budgeting process is about to commence in earnest, so there will be an opportunity to see where some dollars could potentially be freed up.
At Large Council Member Bob Quanrud said the council needs to be made aware when frequent ordinance violators continue to violate. Then, he said, the council can decide whether or not to expend the necessary dollars to more aggressively address the serial violators.
"Maybe the time has come to put up the money and get rid of it," he said. "Then if we do that, maybe the next year things improve some as people realize we're stepping up our efforts. And the year after that, maybe things are even better."
As part of Monday's discussion, Building Official Matt Johnson was given pictures taken by a citizen of the old Cathedral on Ash Street. The photos were initially given to Melbye, who passed them along. They show pigeon feces all over the front steps and what appears to be some bricks that have fallen to the ground from higher up on the structure.
The photos prompted Mayor Dave Genereux to direct staff to look into whether or not it's a public safety issue, health hazard or just plain dangerous for kids or anyone else who passes by.
"If there are falling bricks and it's a public hazard, we have to act," Genereux said. "If this is going on, that's not good at all."
MacDonald agreed. "If there's a danger associated with it we pretty much have no choice but to take action," he said.