Independence City Council members John Perkins and Curt Dougherty believe the city has the right cooperation among the council and city staff – including some new management – to effectively tackle blighted areas in the city, beginning with U.S. 24 to the west.
“This is a new day; we're taking this seriously,” Dougherty said to the citizens who gathered at the Mid-Continent Public Library at 317 U.S. 24 for a public meeting to discuss the city's forthcoming code inspections program.
In what the city is calling the Corridor Code Enforcement initiative, city staff will begin Monday checking buildings along U.S. 24 from the western city limit to Dickinson Road -- just east of William Chrisman High School. That's the dividing line between Perkins' 1st District and Dougherty's 2nd District.
Perkins said dilapidated buildings and neighborhoods and lack of police response were the most common complaints he heard while campaigning early this year. Adding manpower is a common budget struggle and something the council has wished it could do to help the latter complaint. As for neighborhoods, the city says it wants to try a more proactive than reactive program, as code enforcement has almost exclusively been complaint-based. It sees U.S. 24 as the pilot for this approach.
“The city has not taken a comprehensive strategic look at code enforcement in some time,” Perkins said. “We didn't get here (with issues) overnight.”
The city says it will address all code violations, but the primary issues include business licenses, proper signage and screening, trash, tall grass and weeds, prohibited open storage, building maintenance and non-operable vehicles.
Perkins said city staff has been in contact with Kansas City and has a gentlemen's agreement with Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte about that city making similar efforts for its northeast neighborhoods that border Independence.
But whereas Kansas City has about $10 million to work with for getting rid of blighted and abandoned structures -- thanks to federal monies it can receive as a larger city -- Independence has $90,000 to work with.
Assistant Health Director Mike Jackson said city staffers have been or will be meeting with other cities to find out possible different avenues for dealing with blight.
“We get anywhere from 300 to 500 complaints a week during a busy time,” Jackson said. “The City Council has given us some directive to explore different ways to enforce the issues rather than just write tickets. We're trying to think outside the box.”
The city will continue to handle complaints. But for one, Jackson said, the city is looking to possibly expand the idea of a dangerous building beyond structural issues – an abandoned and vandalized building that invites homeless or drug transactions, for example. Possible historical significance of buildings won't be discounted, he said.
Some questions or grievances from the citizens revealed some skepticism that significant change could or would happen, but Dougherty tried to offer assurance the city will follow what legal avenues it could to make the inspections effective.
“We'll be back in a year, and you're going to see a big difference,” he said. “We're going to change the culture of it … within the law.”
He also promised for Christmas that citizens who call with a complaint will soon get a city staffer on the line at all times rather than an automated response.
“We've got to change the way we do customer service,” he said. “Within six months, we'll smash the phone robot.”
Inspections along U.S. 24 will be divided into five sections, beginning from the western city limit and taking approximately one week each:
• Western city limits to Winner Road
• Winner Road to Northern Boulevard
• Northern Boulevard to Forest Avenue
• Forest Avenue to River Boulevard
• River Boulevard to Dickinson Road