Cleaning up code enforcement to clean up the city

In the ongoing fight against blight, the City of Memphis has engaged outside consultants to help clean up the messy code enforcement system, which promises big payoffs. If their plan is implemented, code enforcement could increase capacity by as much as 25 percent, sending Memphis on its way to healthier neighborhoods.
The Memphis Code Enforcement System is costing the city $2.5 million in annual labor and overhead. To tighten up the department, two government consultants are bringing their combined 40 years of experience in public safety and public works to the Memphis-Shelby County Office. The pair is assisting in an overhaul of the code enforcement departments, and their recommendations cover everything from rewriting the policy and procedures manual to garnering greater participation from top leadership.

According to Mark Frater and Doug Leeper, discussions with the city began five years ago. At a conference, Memphis representatives heard the pair speak about their efforts in streamlining government agencies in Ohio, Louisiana and California. Frater is the Principal of LeanFirm, a consulting group specializing with city, county, court and public housing authority clients across the nation. Aside from his consulting work with Code Enforcement Solutions, Leeper has served as an Interim Code Enforcement Manager for New Orleans.

"We've worked together from our different backgrounds. It seemed to be a right fit for what was going on in the City of Memphis," Frater said.
 
Memphis' code enforcement department currently lacks a strategic plan or even a uniform definition of compliance with city codes. Revenue recovery is poor, and the city's inundation of blighted properties is made more problematic because enforcement is spread out across three separate departments.
 
Presently, the Memphis Department of Housing/Code Enforcement, Shelby County Construction Code Enforcement and the Fire Services Commercial Anti-Neglect departments are tasked with monitoring different kinds of property. Various multi-family classifications have fallen through the cracks and left the city with a several-thousand-square-foot problem.
 
These problem properties cost a lot more than just increased complaint calls to Code Enforcement. They reduce property values and revenue and can lead to more abandoned properties in the surrounding areas. Additionally, 60 percent of anti-neglect cases drag on for more than three years before they are resolved.
 
In the proposed plan, Frater and Leeper are doing away with gaps in enforcement. Memphis Code Enforcement will deal with all interior and exterior condition issues and structural issues with residential and multi-family properties. Shelby County Code Enforcement is tasked with zoning and illegal use and structural issues with commercial properties. Processes will be implemented that increase communication and coordination between the two departments.
 
Other outside partnerships will be needed, and the pair agreed that Memphis is in better shape than most cities, having a dedicated Environmental Court Judge, Larry Potter, and the leadership of Steve Barlow (who heads up the Downtown Memphis Commission's anti-blight initiative) and Mayor A C Wharton Jr. (who made tackling blight one of his top three priorities for 2015). Barlow said that he files hundreds of blight-fighting cases per year, and with the city's aggressive blight strategy, that number is growing.
 
Barlow believes that the consulting team can add the most value in standardizing and coordinating the city's code enforcement operations.
 
"Everybody involved agrees that we don't have the standardization that we need," he said. "If we could get to a much higher level of efficiency, which starts with standardization, then we could get to measuring exactly how well we're doing with standard procedures and how well we work with other departments."

Barlow is optimistic about the proposed plan, and he believes that streamlining will allow code enforcement to move beyond a complaint-driven system to one that prevents neighborhoods from reaching deterioration.

"Getting out into that first ring of residential properties, that's going to be our biggest challenge," Frater said. "The City's biggest challenge is to come up with a strategic plan that involves code enforcement but also has some private and public partnerships to tackle the almost institutionalized blight that appears to be there."
 
The team also found that the code enforcement departments are not collecting a significant portion of fees and penalties. Memphis Code Enforcement and Fire Services have a combined annual budget of $2.7 million, but they are bringing in less than $400,000 in revenue. About $6.9 million in uncollected fines and penalties stand, according to 2013 figures.
 
This is largely due to the fact that the code enforcement departments don't have the teeth and tools necessary to get the job done.
 
"Much like a lot of other cities, code enforcement in Memphis is very much reactive to complaints, and the city has not necessarily used a strategic redevelopment instrument in how code enforcement is deployed and what tools they're able to use," Frater said.
 
He added that tools such as citations, daily fines, abatements, tax lien sales or foreclosures, and taking property owners to court, will help guide a neighborhood to a better end.
 
Frater and Leeper are working closely with Memphis-Shelby County’s various agencies as they move towards the two-phase implementation process. They're planning to put together teams of front-line employees to focus on specific code enforcement problems.
 
"I've found the line staff themselves to be very anxious to be able to do a good job," Leeper said.
 
If their proposed plan is implemented, the team believes that code enforcement will increase its capacity by 25 percent and recover the $2.5 million in annual service costs. With a streamlined code enforcement department, negligent property owners can be taken down, and underserved property owners can receive assistance to help bring the neighborhood up to a greater standard. 

"I think that if you can do one thing to make a difference, then getting your code enforcement operations the best that they can be is the one thing that you should do," Barlow said. "We're investing in it right now. We're very fearless about it."
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