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Ceres Code Enforcement: cleaning up Ceres is a dirty job but somebody has to do it
• A basketball hoop is illegally out on the street.

• A vendor is walking down the street pushing a cart of ice creams without a business license.

• Someone has blocked a sidewalk with an A-frame sign advertising a garage sale.

• The neighbor stopped working on a building project down the street and has left a big pile of debris.

• Ceres residential neighborhoods are marred by piles of unsightly debris next to the driveway or in the yard.

• An eatery is operating without a current business license.

• The yard next door hasn't seen a lawnmower in quite a while and weeds are knee-high.

• Squatters have set up camp in the repossessed house on the block to do drugs and other unsavory activities.

These are all common cases that flag the attention of the city of Ceres' two full-time code enforcement officers who charged with cleaning up eyesores, eliminating safety hazards and enforcement of municipal code violations.

The city's two officers, Frank Alvarez and Paula Redfern, will both tell you that theirs is an often unpleasant but necessary job.

"We've had situations where people have gotten really hostile towards us," said Alvarez. "Most people are civil about it. Any time that you instruct somebody to do something about their own property, they don't take lightly to it. The majority understand why we're there and the reasoning behind it."

Alvarez once inspected a resident about unsafe electrical outlets in a house where some children lived.

"He was gang affiliated," said Redfern, "and didn't like the fact that he had to correct these ... so we had to call an officer out."

Police are usually called out during inspections where trouble is expected.

"We don't get into an argument with them," said Redfern. "We have the facts ... on paper and if they want to make a complaint we give them the phone number and the name of the person they're going to complain to."

Code enforcement takes its cue from both complaints called into the hotline (538-5799) or visual inspections during neighborhood patrols.

"We try to be pro-active," said Redfern. "If we see a major violation then we're going to stop and take care of it."

Much of the caseload deals with unkept properties due to the foreclosures. Banks are not very good about keeping lawns watered and mowed.

"Our big thing right now is weeds," said Redfern. "We're inundated with weeds, primarily vacant lots and vacant residential."

She noted that in foreclosures, most families move out sooner than they have to but they are still legally responsible for property maintenance before the bank takes possession. If the city gets involved and starts citing and fining the owner, all fines and liens must be taken care of before the property can change hands again.

For minor offenses at inhabitated properties, code enforcement officers often will leave a brightly-colored Courtesy Notice of Violation. They are typically given for those who leave their garbage cans within view on non-collection days - not a high priority complaint - or for those who leave skateboard ramps or basketball hoops on the street. They may also be left for those who are visibly storing furniture, appliances or equipment in front or side yards. The city calls such practices as public nuisances.

"Discarded items that they haven't thrown in the trash is considered a public nuisance. Furniture is considered a public nuisance because it's meant to be indoors, not outdoors."

Vegetation that is both a fire hazard or "substantially depreciates the value of neighboring properties" is also be reason for issuing warnings or citations.

Most homeowner take care of the problem once the city has made contact and asks them to deal with it. Generally the city will reinspect the property within 10 days to see if the nuisance has been abated. If not, depending on the offense, a property owner will be issued an administrative citation or a Notice of Violation.

Redfern said that she frequently deals with people who hord items and store junk inside and outside their homes. She's also dealt with elderly residents with too many cats in the house where cat urine and feces are causing health and safety problems.

"Sometimes the front of the house can be immaculate and the inside of the house will be stacked ceiling high with boxes, stacks of paper. It could be brand new stuff, people who shop at home shopping. All they do is shop and it just piles up."

Redfern said she tries to deal more gingerly with older residents.

"We try to find resources for the elderly," she said. "They just don't have the means or aren't physically able to do it and they don't have family. So we'll contact Adult Protective Services and they're a good resource. They can help with housing, making sure they have plenty of food."

Redfern had to deal with an occupant of a one-bedroom house that was infested with cockroaches and clothing saturated with cat urine.

"The lady did not want to leave so we called Adult Protective Services and between us kind of guiding her and them, she decided to go with them and they found her some more housing and give her some clothing. From what I understand it's gone pretty well with her."

The unit also works in tandem with other city resources. The city has its own seasonal water wasting violation officer but Code Enforcement can make a referral. If Code Enforcement sees an abandoned vehicle, it will refer the matter to the the city's Abandoned Vehicle Abatement (AVA) unit.

"They don't do boats so if it were a boat or something like that we would handle that situation."

If the officers see illegal building activit - such as a garage conversion without a permit - the matter is flagged to the Building Division.

"A few days ago I was doing an inspection for some weeds and debris and wastewheelers," said Redfern, "and when I went to go put the courtesy notice on the door the garage door opens up and I notice the garage had been converted - without a permit."

She referred the matter to the building inspectors. "He'll go out and tell her what she needs to do to make it legal. She's complying. Some people don't. Most people do. We give them the option. You can either demolish the illegal structure or just bring it up to code and get the proper permit."

Redfern finds that the ones who don't comply with the first notice usually act after the first $100 administrative citation is delivered.

"That does it," she said.

On top of that the city charges a code enforcement fee. The bill can be around $160.

Another example of a public safety nuisance can be a homeowner who has a backyard pool with no barrier to young children. Or a refrigerator sitting on a porch.

Sometimes it's business owners that are paid a visit. Redfern and Alvarez are charged with inspecting businesses for current licenses.

"We have a number of businesses in the city that do not have valid business licenses," said Redfern, pulling her city pickup up to a Mexican restaurant in a prominent shopping center. She was there to issue a $100 fine for not having a license. Nor had the business been paying the quarterly mil taxes to the city of Ceres.

Redfern and Alvarez have also caught ice cream vendors illegally selling product within a thousand feet of a school or in or adjacent to a park.

They also work to rid RVs from being used as permanent living quarters parked at residences.

"Right now there's a lot because people are allowing their adult children to live there because they don't want them in their house and the neighbors are complaining," said Redfern. "A lot of times the types of people who are doing have a lot of foot traffic and activity at times. Other times you've got a nice family who lost their home and there's not enough room in the house but a family member is letting them stay there temporarily. Those are harder when it's something legit."

The unit is supervised by Brian Nicholes.