PART I: The Cost of Code Enforcement
By Olin Ericksen
October 27, 2004 -- Two years after the City Council made code enforcement the Planning Department's top budget priority, the backlog of complaints the City set out to eliminate is expected to nearly double, despite some $3 million spent to combat the problem, The Lookout has learned.
Stepped up enforcement, greater public awareness and a staffing shortage have resulted in a rising number of backlogged complaints, which have grown from 550 in the 2001-02 fiscal year to more than 700 currently, according to planning officials.
The number of complaints of code violations -- which include everything from tall hedges and sidewalk sandwich boards to noisy bars -- is expected to nearly double to 1,300 by next year, according to performance measures released by the City.
"Though I can say the program has been successful as a whole, it certainly hasn't been without its problems," said Mayor Richard Bloom, who described the number of current cases backlogged as "huge."
"We've enacted such ordinances to provide some kind of relief to residents who live next door to these problems," Bloom said. "As to the program's success, it depends on whose ox is being gored."
Five years ago the City faced a much different problem. Quarterly reports from Santa Monica's new top planning enforcer to a new pro-resident Planning Commission showed less than 100 complaints lodged each year.
And although only a handful of residents testified that the City was lax in enforcing its zoning code, several planning commissioners said they were approached by concerned residents outside City Hall.
The dearth of complaints, the planning officials contended, reflected not fewer violations committed, but rather hundreds that were not being enforced, even after being reported to the City's Building and Safety Division.
"Something was not working as good as it could and we decided we should do something about it," said Tim McCormick, the division's head of code enforcement.
The shift to enforcement, McCormick said, was a "team effort" between his department, the Planning Commission and the Architectural Review Board (ARB) to come up with an approach to tackle the problem.
The City Council blessed the new approach on July 9, 2002, when four of its members voted to make code enforcement the number one budget priority for the Planning Department. The other three council members were absent when the item was approved on consent with no public testimony.
"People were complaining on all of these issues," said Mayor Bloom, who voted for the budget priority. "People would make complaints, and then nothing would happen."
Fellow Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights Council members Michael Feinstein, Kevin McKeown and Ken Genser, who also voted for the increase, agreed with Bloom that violations were rampant throughout the City.
"People were ignoring the laws," Feinstein said. "Either you have a law or you don't."
Council member McKeown -- who is the only one of the four not seeking reelection -- went so far as to say the City developed a reputation" for relaxed enforcement.
The path chosen by City officials to combat the problem was to boost enforcement, both in response to resident complaints and when code enforcement officers saw violations while following up on a case, McCormick said.
"The goal has always been to be more proactive," McCormick said.
While proactive enforcement started out and remains a goal, it is now required in order to assure First Amendment rights are being protected, according to the City Attorney's office.
As the City began responding to more and more complaints, attorney's advised the council and McCormick that enforcement could not be "selective."
"We were given legal advice that we have to enforce the law evenly," McKeown said.
After the City's new emphasis on enforcement kicked in, the Building and Safety Division's budget grew to an estimated $3.5 million in the current fiscal year, up from $2.2 million last year, according to Finance Director Steve Stark.
But the budget increase and stepped up enforcement have made little dent in the backlog of complaints, according to the department's performance measures. In fact, despite the Planning Commission and City Council's stated goal to eliminate the backlog, it is expected to grow instead of shrink.
"I'd say staff capacity and the influx of new cases are the two biggest factors in a rising case-load," said McCormick, who noted that three code compliance positions remain unfilled with the City. "Every time we take in a new complaint, it is technically backlogged."
Staffing shortages have plagued the Planning Department for years now, with an audit published in July hinting that heavy workloads and buearocratic inefficiencies may play a part.
Even without an increased number of code enforcers on the street, code violations initiated by the City are on the rise, in large part due to pro-active enforcement, planning officials said.
In 2004, nearly a quarter of all zoning code violations -- which includes auto repair, sign and outdoor merchandise, fence and hedge heights and noise violations -- were found as a result of pro-active enforcement, a 15 percent increase from 2001, McCormick said.
And the numbers are expected to rise. After his department fills the three code compliance positions in April of next year, it will be "looking to see a rise in proactive cases, with almost more of them being proactive rather than reactive in the future," McCormick said. Much of the enforcement will focus on noise and hedge height violations, he added.
The rise in complaints is also a result of more residents being aware of the law, some Planning officials said.
"People are seeing we were doing more about it," said Planning Commissioner Jay Johnson, "and now they are more likely to report violations."
Though no notices or advertisements were made to the public, Johnson said he has "heard from citizens" who say they are coming forward now because they know the City will take action.
Yet cracking down on code violations does not come without a cost for the City.
Excluding building code violations, the City now spends approximately $1.5 million per year on zoning code enforcement, McCormick said. Approximately 60 percent of that $1.5 million is spent on paper work, which is tackled collectively by City Hall staff.
"Our goal is compliance, not cost recovery," said McCormick. "If someone is fined $250 for a zoning violation, then that fine does not come even close to covering the cost of the investigation."
When a fine is assessed, McCormick estimates that 97 percent of the time the City does not collect, because the person voluntarily complies.
Indeed the number of violators who come into compliance voluntarily has risen substantially, from 80 last fiscal year to nearly 222 currently, according to the performance measures published in the City's 2004/2005 budget.
McCormick credits both increased awareness of enforcement and a council vote in 2002 to stiffen fines for zoning code violators, who now face $75 to $1,000 fines or six months in prison, or both.
No one, thus far, has received the maximum penalty, according to the City attorney's office.PART II: Threats of a $25,000 fine for hedge violations trigger a political movement that could reshape the City Council.
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