Independence City Manager Robert Heacock asked City Council members to imagine a scenario involving code compliance.

Independence City Manager Robert Heacock asked City Council members to imagine a scenario involving code compliance.

In the hypothetical situation, Heacock took a list of recent code compliance statistics involving more than 3,000 properties and turned them around, painting a fictional picture in which the city would “go after” those in violation of city codes.

“Fortunately, we’re not sending that message because that’s not the approach we take,” Heacock said. “Instead of looking at sectors, let’s work with neighborhoods. Instead of treating people as nameless and faceless, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.”  

The situation he presented was actually a familiar scene in cities across the country, but for the past five years, Independence officials say they’ve opted for a more “proactive not reactive” approach called the Neighborhood Code Compliance Program.  

During eight neighborhood cleanups on Saturdays in 2010, the city and volunteers served 3,111 addresses and collected more than 625,000 pounds of brush and trash that were voluntarily removed from the neighborhoods. In its more than five years of existence, the program collected 2.9 million pounds of trash and brush – and the city is anxious to surpass the 3 million-pound mark in its first cleanup event in 2011.

The program works in multiple phases. First, the city notifies neighborhoods of the program and mails out invitation letters for an initial project meeting. However, the city is considering eliminating the meeting portion of the process this year, saying that letters, brochures and a new online video will serve the same informational purpose. Attendance at last year’s meetings was down compared to the first years of the program.

Then, city staff conduct an initial walk-through of neighborhoods that will participate, making note of all properties and whether they are in compliance. They look for the following violations:

Grass or weeds more than 12 inches in height and thicket-like conditions; Non-operable or unlicensed vehicles; Trash or refuse; Visibility of house numbers; and Major building maintenance issues.

Next, neighborhood residents and volunteers gather on a Saturday to clean up, taking trash and brush to trash containers. With the help of a $3,000 grant from the Truman Heartland Community Foundation, the city has purchased an open trailer to collect items of disposal.

After the cleanup day, city staff follow up with a formal inspection – and the results, they say, are positive. Last year, the participating properties netted an 89-percent compliance rate following the cleanup event. Once formal notices were issued toward code violations, 98 percent of property owners voluntarily complied.

“Getting 98 out of 100 people to do anything – all at the same time and together – that’s pretty incredible,” said Andrew Warlen, the city’s code compliance manager.

Evaluations are the final step of the program. Residents are encouraged to provide feedback and suggestions on how the program may be improved and whether they thought it was effective. According to the city, an overwhelming majority of respondents in 2010 replied that they would recommend the program to others and thought the program was beneficial.

This year, the city is aiming to double the size of the area served. Eight areas will be served and will be selected based on ETC Institute/citizen survey information, crime data, citizen requests and code compliance violations. Since 2008, the Independence program has received several state and national awards, and it was one of 45 city programs across the United States chosen as a finalist for the National League of Cities 2010 awards for Municipal Excellence.

The ETC Institute has called the Neighborhood Code Compliance Program “a model of Missouri cities when it comes to code enforcement.”

“It’s indicative of what Independence does for its people,” said District 3 Council Member Myron Paris, who has received a tour of the code compliance process from city staff members.

Residents may visit the city’s website at ci.independence.mo.us for more information, or they may call 816-325-7008 or 816-325-7193. District 1 Council Member Marcie Gragg has volunteered during a Saturday cleanup event, and she offered one suggestion – with a smile – to Warlen following his presentation on Monday night.

“Warn them that snakes come out of the Dumpsters,” she said.