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City to enlist volunteers for blight fight
Group to become eyes and ears for code enforcement
illegal signs.tif
A new volunteer program will solicit people to be the eyes and ears for the city to combat blight and code violations, such as these illegal yard sale signs. City officials say they contribute to blight, which in turn discourages economic development and increases crime. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier file photo

Since tough budget times prompted the City Council to make serious cuts to code enforcement personnel, things have been sliding in Ceres. Illegal signs, accumulated trash and illegal businesses have been on the increase. Now the council is ready to tackle the problem of a lack of manpower to help enforce city law through the use of volunteers.

Last week the council gave its blessing to a Volunteers in Code Enforcement (VICE) program that will start up Jan. 1 to add more eyes and ears to help staff fight problems.

"We think we have a model that will work," said Acting City Manager and Director of Public Safety Art de Werk. He added that the city has been inundated with complaints which has resulted in an "ongoing absolute backlog in requests for service" that cannot be handled solely by City Fire Marshall Bryan Nicholes, who is in charge of the city's code enforcement program, and the city's sole code enforcement officer Frank Alvarez.

"Things aren't working out so well. They just don't have the resources," said de Werk.

De Werk said volunteers will not be enforcing the law nor being confrontational but will be reporting instances of violations as well as taking photos to document conditions.

He also noted that the program fits in well with the city's goal of cracking down on illegal signage that is becoming a "problem" in Ceres.

DeWerk said the city will enlist "enthusiastic members of the public to help with this."

Volunteers will be vetted as reputable people.
Volunteers could help the city search and cite for "certain aspects of code enforcement ," said Nicholes, such as excessive amounts of yard sales, illegally placed yard sale signs, trash accumulation on properties, illegal auto repairs being conducted in neighborhoods and general conditions of blight.

Many cities use volunteers for code enforcement but it's never been tried in Ceres. Nicholes said volunteers could provide a "huge benefit," including helping Ceres maintain a "sense of pride and maintain the city's neighborhoods in the best condition possible.

Nicholes said volunteers will be sought and training given this winter so the program can begin on Jan. 1. He said there is an iPhone app which may be downloaded and used to snap photos and send to the city which will be automatically channeled to the appropriate department, whether it is tree trimming, code enforcement, abandoned vehicles or drug houses.

"Our goal is to have volunteers use this program to cut down on paper work," said Nicholes. "It's going to be a tool, I think, that will actually enhance the program but still not going to make up for not having enough people out there but at least more eyes and ears."
He said the volunteers may be instructed to just "pull down" illegal signs.

"We're going to notify the people that put it up there that we've taken their sign down, give it back to them if necessary, and then that will be their initial warning and if we catch their signs up again any place then they will get a citation for it. Unfortunately I think we're going to be a little tough with signage because they go up everywhere, not just for yard sales, you know, lost puppies and businesses are starting to put them on utility poles."

Some volunteers can also alleviate a lot of paperwork and letters that ties Alvarez up in the office and away from the field. Nicholes said that for every couple of hours in the field, Alvarez has to deal with an hour of documentation and letter writing.

"The less time we're in the office the more time we can be in the field."

Nicholes anticipates the program can handle 10 volunteers to give a minimum of a four-hour block to assist the city.
Nicholes said he's working with the city's IT Department to allow the public to use the cell phone app to be the eyes and ears as well.

"Our goal is to have the normal everyday citizen have access to it."

Ceres resident Len Shepherd said he likes the idea of volunteers helping out but jested that he didn't like the "VICE" title.

"Any time you can get people who are enthusiastic and to help you it frees up Frank a lot if he's going to have 10 people out there," said Shepherd.

The cost of a volunteer program would run about $3,500, including $1,500 to cover background checks, and $1,000 for uniforms.

As Nicholes proposes, volunteers must possess a high school diploma, and a valid drivers' license, offer references and undergo a background check before training would commence. Applicants would be matched up with jobs to their skill set.

Volunteers would not be enforcing in their own neighborhoods and not be going inside of any building, Nicholes noted.

College students would be welcome to apply for community service credit.