Mount Airy will be getting a full-time codes enforcement officer for the first time in years, due to action by the city Board of Commissioners Thursday night.
It voted 4-1, with Commissioner Jon Cawley dissenting, to establish that position within city government. For more than five years, the codes function was handled through the private Benchmark firm of Charlotte, which provides planning-related services to Mount Airy.
City officials became dissatisfied with that arrangement, opting to hire a local-based codes officer they thought might be more effective, Bill Beamer, who worked under Police Chief Dale Watson. Beamer came aboard in August 2017 on a part-time schedule of 20 hours per week, but resigned effective June 30.
Since then, the police chief has undertaken codes enforcement on an interim basis, handling mostly lot-nuisance calls such as overgrown yards and some minimum housing violations, which he has said consumes about 25 percent of his work day.
City Manager Barbara Jones said the during the commissioners’ meeting Thursday night that some citizens have criticized that situation as being an improper use of the police chief’s time.
“It has been an extra job or task for him,” Jones acknowledged.
But, she said, “in no way has it caused any problems with the safety of this community.”
Among other tasks, the enforcer will investigate violations associated with minimum housing conditions, abandoned structures, abandoned property, tall grass and weeds, trash, debris, junk vehicles and other nuisances.
Alternatives don’t pan out
An attempt recently was made to have the Surry County government take over codes enforcement in Mount Airy, but county officials declined. One of the reasons for that was the city’s adoption in May of the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC), which is more complex than rules used by the county and would require additional training for Surry and adding an employee.
This left Mount Airy back at Square One, and it recently began advertising the opening, once again on a part-time (20-hours-per-week) basis.
“And we have had no applicants to date,” the city manager told the board, with the application period to close this afternoon.
“The chief has reached out to some private companies who do this,” she said of another option explored which did not produce fruit.
Jones said Benchmark officials also were contacted about having the codes function re-added to its list of services to city government.
“It is my understanding that they do not have the time or the staff,” Jones reported. Steve May, the Benchmark employee who came to Mount Airy two days each week for codes enforcement for a number of years, is now said to have his hands full with other responsibilities.
All this led to the board’s decision Thursday night.
“I really would like to have a full-time codes enforcement officer,” said Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, who introduced a successful motion to that effect while citing bad conditions around town with violations.
In concurring, Commissioner Steve Yokeley said problems with some houses in the city have languished for too long and need attention.
“We can’t depend on the county to do anything,” Yokeley said. “We have to do it ourselves and we have to enforce the laws,” bringing problem properties up to code.
New code questioned
Commissioner Jim Armbrister also agreed with the idea of a full-time employee, but offered a supplemental suggestion:
“Suspend the use of the international code,” Armbrister said of the IPMC, “and go back to what we had.”
He reasoned that there is a huge volume of cases, mostly residential in nature, some of which go back six years.
Armbrister said not having to enforce the more stringent rules, including for commercial sites, would mean less of a burden for the new employee who would have a hard enough time administering the former framework.
“Right now we can’t carry fifty pounds, so why start with a hundred?” he said.
However, other board members were reluctant to go that far.
“Before we suspend the international code, I think we ought to have (the new person) take a look at it,” Brinkley said, then advise the board of its pros and cons.
Cawley, who voted against the IPMC adoption in May, and also has opposed other codes proposals which he has labeled as examples of government overreach, followed suit with his dissenting vote Thursday night.
He said the city government has been inconsistent in the handling of these matters over the years and indicated that it doesn’t have a clear plan going forward. Cawley added that strict adherence to the international code also might lead to increased demolition of houses, something the commissioners have sought to avoid.
Now that the board has voted to make the position full time, the city manager said she will bring cost figures for that to its next meeting in October so a budget amendment can be made to fund the job.
Brinkley pointed out that some of the costs will be offset by the fact no codes salary has been paid since Beamer’s departure.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.