Mount Airy officials decided during a meeting Thursday afternoon to hire a codes officer in order to better address housing and nuisance violations in the city.
The 4-1 vote by the Board of Commissioners effectively removes code enforcement from the functions now performed by Benchmark Planning, a private firm that’s handled zoning administration, urban design, land-use planning and related tasks for Mount Airy since 2011.
While the list presently includes codes enforcement targeting substandard housing that poses safety risks, this service is provided for only two days per week under Benchmark’s contract with the city. The firm is now paid $165,000 annually for its work on behalf of the city.
But that will change effective July 1, at the insistence of Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, who brought the codes-enforcement change to the table for Thursday’s council meeting — a matter that was a late addition to the agenda.
Brinkley had expressed concerns about ongoing housing-code violations during the last commissioners meeting on April 20. “It is mainly nuisance and housing,” she said Thursday afternoon of structural violations along with situations such as overgrown or trashy yards.
In moving then that the city government remove enforcement duties from Benchmark Planning to in-house, Brinkley explained that “enforcing over a longer time … is what I’m trying to do.”
She indicated that the problems require more attention than the two days of codes-enforcement services Benchmark is supplying.
“We have a lot of situations that need to be enforced,” Brinkley said in arguing for the change.
“It’s to have more visible enforcement for longer periods of time,” she said of her proposal. “The recommendation is to have our own codes-enforcement officer that’s certified.”
Brinkley pointed out that Mount Airy once employed its own officer for many years and the situation worked well.
Commissioner Jim Armbrister seemed to warm up to Brinkley’s plan Thursday after being assured that the intent was not to change existing regulations, but switch hats from Benchmark to a city worker.
However, Commissioner Jon Cawley — who cast the dissenting vote — expressed concern that having a codes person at work for longer periods of time would greatly increase housing violations and force people to improve properties who can’t afford to do so.
Cawley said he doesn’t consider expanding the city’s housing-codes enforcement to be an urgent need “because I think there are a lot of people hurting (financially).”
After he posed the question to Brinkley about whether the in-house person would generate a greater caseload, she replied: “I don’t know, Jon — I don’t think it will be worse.”
“It might be worse if you’re low-income and somebody says you need to put vinyl siding on your house,” Cawley said in response.
“Are we prepared as a city to take this to the fullest extent?”
Cawley also said he was concerned about exposing the municipality to liability risks, if cases aren’t handled uniformly — indicating that there has been inconsistency with housing violations in the past when the city has had to resort to tearing structures down.
“This one we demolish and this one we don’t,” he said of situations in which some structures have been spared from the wrecking ball.
“This is not going to be as easy a fix as I think you are hoping it will be,” Cawley told Brinkley in regard to her proposal.
“I know it’s not going to be easy,” she acknowledged.
Although Brinkley initially proposed Thursday that the in-house codes enforcer be a full-time municipal employee, other board members argued successfully to drop that designation for now and determine the exact work schedule later.
“It will probably be easier to find someone for full-time,” Brinkley said, but added that this might be dictated by a variety of factors.
Cawley asked if any savings will result from the change, to go into effect with the start of the next fiscal year in less than three months.
“We’ll have to do the calculations,” City Manager Barbara Jones said of monetary adjustments that will be made in Benchmark’s contract to account for removing the housing function.
“We will continue to pay for all parts of the contract with Benchmark except for the codes enforcement,” Jones said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.