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City to beef up code enforcement
City Council holds special workshop to discuss tactics to reduce blight
Walmart dump
An example of illegal dumping was found last week at the abandoned Walmart store site at Hatch and Mitchell where car parts were left near the northern entrance. Walmart is responsible for cleaning up its property but at times it requires city reminders to do so. - photo by Jeff Benziger

In response to persistent illegal dumping, widespread problems with blight and unsightly properties in Ceres, the City Council endorsed a plan during a special workshop held Wednesday evening to beef up code enforcement efforts.

City leaders like the strategy that has been outlined by Police Chief Rick Collins and City Manager Alex Terrazas, which includes doubling the number of code enforcement officers who will work four regular beats, and a robust video surveillance system to catch illegal dumpers at hot spots.

Funding for the added personnel will come from federal ARPA funds given to cities following the COVID pandemic.

Members want to keep the complaint-driven method of dealing with eyesores but code enforcement officers will also be initiating action when observed.

“Generally we’re trying to work with folks who may have a code enforcement issue,” said Terrazas. “It’s a compliance/educational effort to work with residents to get them into compliance. But at the same time, we’re not afraid to write Notices of Violation and write citations.”

Collins gave an overview of the problems being dealt with in Ceres, specifically illegal dumping, blight, substandard housing, homeless camps, zoning violations and illegal street vending.

Ceres currently has two code enforcement officers who are managed by Ceres Police Lt. Chris Perry, a secretary, two part-time vehicle abatement officers and a graffiti abatement contractor. A pilot program the city recently initiated assigned two part-time workers to clean up illegal dumping on public streets two days a week which Collins said has resulted in “visually the streets look a lot better.”

Chief Collins proposes two more officers, one of whom would be a working supervisor. While Councilman Mike Kline was the only councilman who didn’t want a working supervisor, Chief Collins commented that having a sworn police sergeant to oversee the unit “just doesn’t work.”

“There needs to be day-to-day supervision within the unit, somebody who has extensive code enforcement knowledge and experience, to be embedded into the unit if we’re going to make this thing a success. I support the supervisor.”

Councilman James Casey agreed with Collins.

“We’re all aware that this is a big problem that didn’t happen overnight and I know we can’t expect it to be corrected by the first of July either, but I do think that we as a council have an obligation to the citizens to ask the chief for updates to show that there is definite improvement.”
Councilman James Casey

“We’re all aware that this is a big problem that didn’t happen overnight and I know we can’t expect it to be corrected by the first of July either,” said Casey, “but I do think that we as a council have an obligation to the citizens to ask the chief for updates to show that there is definite improvement.”

The working Code Enforcement supervisor would answer to the Ceres Police captain or lieutenant in charge.

Collins addressed street vendors, saying that in some cases workers are dropped off vendors. He said one investigation led police to discover some vendors came from as far away as Pittsburg to sell on Ceres streets.

“We need to take a look at private property versus public property,” said Collins. “I’ve been told that we get a lot of resistance and pushback from businesses like Home Depot and La Sequoia who actually allow the vendors to sell on their properties. That could create problems in the long run but we need to figure that out down the road.”

He said some vendors have been warned and cited multiple times with no charge in behavior.

Because of concerns raised about street vendors who don’t obtain business licenses because of costs, the council wanted Chief Collins to investigate lowering the insurance requirements. The city currently required street vendors to have liability insurance policy protection of $2 million.

“One of the ideas to maybe entice them to comply with our requirements is lowering that to about $1 million,” said Chief Collins.

Mayor Lopez liked the idea but others didn’t.

That idea didn’t set well with Casey, who said “two million dollars was a lot of money when we were in grade school but $2 million is not much now; and since we are lax on enforcing street vendors and if something was to occur … $2 million adds up pretty quick.”

Vice Mayor Bret Silveira said lowering the amount would not “move the needle at all in making these street vendors all of a sudden get insurance and permits. I don’t see that at all.”

But he was open to looking into it.

Collins proposed a schedule of working code enforcement officers 10 hours for four days with Saturday coverage included. Casey and Kline wanted to see someone working Sundays initially. Collins, a proponent of the four-day 10-hour schedule, said he would work up a rotation schedule’s pros and cons.

Terrazas said it’s important to offer regular updates to the council and community. But he also stated that Code Enforcement is a process that requires due process and time.

“We will put our shoulder behind it but it is a process,” Terrazas told the council. “I think we need to set reasonable expectations on the process and understand that this process is not going to make changes overnight.”

Councilman Casey suggested that some blight is being allowed to occur with no apparent concern of those who are employed by the city. He mentioned debris illegally dumping on Fairview Avenue that “sat there for a year.” Casey said CE officers and the city street sweeper must have seen it as they drove by.

While about 96 new complaints are lodged each month, Chief Collins said health and safety issues take priority.

“Therefore a complaint of an inhabited residence which contains suspected active mold is investigated first rather than a vehicle with expired registration sitting in the driveway,” said the chief. “All complaints are investigated in a timely manner and are important to us because they are important to our citizens.”

He outlined that highest priority is given to building issues, health and safety violations and immediate public safety risks. Further down on the priority list are complaints about public nuisances, blight, abandoned vehicles, illegal dumps and vendors without a license.

The lowest priority are abandoned shopping carts, prohibited signs, garage sales conducted without a permit and citizens keeping their waste-wheelers in public life throughout the week.

Collins showed before and after photos of blight eradicated by city Code Enforcement.

Collins spoke about the smartphone app called GO Request whereby citizens can report problems to city Code Enforcement. Terrazas, however, said that the city has to do better in responding to complaints made through the app.

“I reported a dump site on Go Gov, asked the staff if it had been addressed. Bertolotti (Disposal) indicated it had been picked up. I knew for a fact that it hadn’t been picked up because I picked up the dump site myself. I threw it in the back of my truck after driving by it for about a week and a half; I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

Another prong to the strategy is better communication between the city Parks Department staff and the graffiti abatement contractor; specifically to set up an on-call procedure to abate large scale or offensive graffiti.

“Not too long ago we had an issue arise at Strawberry Park where we had to get all hands on deck to clean up some very offensive stuff,” said Collins.

Ideally he would like one CE officer to handle all graffiti and vandalism issues in the parks “because it is such a common occurrence.”

To deal with people camping inside RVs parked in commercial and shopping center lot, Collins said the city must get in touch with businesses for them to install signs forbidding trespassing and loitering.