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Council: More help in code enforcement
Abandoned carts are one of a myriad of problems that are tackled annually by Ceres code enforcement officer Frank Alvarez. He needs help, the council said last week.

Enforcing city code sections is too big a job for one full-time employee.

That was the summation of the Ceres City Council following a March 23 Study Session that lasted nearly 90 minutes.

The bigger issue is how the city will find the additional help for Frank Alvarez, the city's lone code enforcer and program supervisor, Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes.

The city dealt with 910 calls about code violations in 2014 which included complaints about parking, barking dogs, animal feces, water wasting, pools turning green, abandoned shopping carts, overgrown lots, illegal dumping, homeless squatters, basketball hoops in the street, illegal signs, waste wheelers left in public view, construction without permits, and sloven property maintenance.

"The bottom line is you need support staff in order for him (Alvarez) to be effective," said City Manager Toby Wells, "and then really it comes down to priorities."
The city doesn't have the resources to be proactive in code enforcement and responds only as complaints are made, added Wells.

"Maybe we need to be budgeting for additional people for code enforcement," said Mayor Chris Vierra, who suggested perhaps allocating a firefighter join Alvarez on code enforcement.

Wells cautioned that next year's budget won't yield more revenues and can't yield the three to four code enforcement officers - at about $102,000 per year as a whole - needed for a city the size of Ceres.

"That's three or four bodies from another department that have to go away," said Wells.

The council received a brief education on how code enforcement works in Ceres and about the need to give violators due process to take care of matters. After a courtesy notice is issued, violators have 10 days to correct the problem. After a re-inspection and if still in violation, a notice of violation is issued and taken care of within 10 days. If it isn't, a $100 fine and citation is issued. In most cases the process can take 30 days or less, which is less time than the 45 to 90 days given by some local cities.

"As much as we would like to be able to just walk up to somebody and get it fixed immediately ... there is due process involved in that," said Wells.

The mayor said the council has "to streamline this process ... to the greatest extent we can shrink those timelines."

Also slowing down efforts is that for every hour in the field, Alvarez has to spend an equal amount of paperwork processing in the office.

Code enforcement in Ceres for the past three years has been the responsibility of one individual, with occasional help of Nicholes and from the city streets division crew.

Councilmember Linda Ryno suggested asking all city staff and residents to help out and noted how she rolled up her own sleeves to clean up a Fourth Street lot of an abandoned cart filled with debris.

"That bothered me ... and I kept thinking how can everyone drive back and forth to work and nobody's seeing this. If I was working (for the city) I may not have stopped but I would have called someone about it."

Ryno added: "We just need to have people start caring that live here."

Wells agreed but said city employees can't do it all. "It's got to be our citizens have to take pride in their city."

Ryno asked why police officers can't solely be involved in abating homeless encampments, noting that some homeless are dealing with drugs and criminal activity. Nicholes explained that Alvarez - who is armed only with mace and a baton - is involved because it's the municipal code.

"Maybe that should be a function that PD takes over and does so that Frank doesn't get put in harm's way," said Mayor Chris Vierra.

Wells said the city must be careful in "terms of the law."

"Being homeless is not illegal," said Wells. "The only thing you've got to enforce that is our municipal code on camping. If we're going to strengthen our ordinance we have to be careful as well because there are a lot of folks out there who are advocates for the homeless who come out in force when you start to change some of these laws."

Ceres police are already taxed with 50,000 calls for service per year, Wells reminded the council.

Cleaning up properties of homeless camps is tricky as well, said Alvarez, who noted that state law requires the city to store for 30 days any possession valued at $3 or more.

Vierra said starting Oct. 1, the city of Modesto will be trying to push homeless people out onto other neighboring cities.
"If we don't address this issue, we're going to see a lot more of this and not only is Frank not going to have any time on his hands, the PD isn't either."

Councilman Mike Kline said any city worker should be able to make a phone call to report loose shopping carts littering the city.

"Those things ain't cheap; they're gonna go pick them up," said Kline. "Now you've eliminated a little bit of your problem."

Ryno noted that the city of Manteca has a VIPS program where volunteers are the eyes and ears for code violations. Nicholes said Ceres uses a computer app which allows city workers to photograph and document violations but noted "that still necessitates him going out to look at it to verify for himself." VIPs, said Alvarez, has worked a while in the past but enthusiasm wears off.

West Ceres resident Gene Yeakley approached the council and suggested that police are not enforcing the noise ordinance.

"A lot of the times they go out they don't cite them," said Yeakley. "One of the officers told me specifically if you start taking money from someone they'll start listening. The same people seem to be the same violators of the noise code and nothing is being done about it. It's a problem. We slap people's hands here."

Wells said that the city will be looking to revamp some codes and prioritize the ones to be enforced the heaviest.

Some new ordinances may also be coming to the council, one of which would outlaw the parking of vehicles on a lawn.

Mayor Vierra said the city might want to enact stiffer fines and issue ominous sounding letters to the residents who are repeatedly must be visited for violations.
When Wells asked the council to come up with their top three priorities for code enforcement, Ryno responded that it was difficult to do. She wondered why police weren't handling illegally parked big-rigs or vehicles blocking driveways.

Ceres resident Don Cool, who is contemplating a run for City Council, suggested the city needs to be more creative with the employees it has to solve the problem.

"I think we need to get PD involved in this," said Cool. "There's so many things they could handle."

Nicholes pointed out that the city has made significant progress in abating graffiti in Ceres, thanks to the contract the city has with Howard Training Center.