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City adopts code enforcement recovery fee

The city of Farmington has the option now of a $30 fee for code enforcement violations not addressed after two inspections. Kara Hildreth / contributor

Due to a rising number of complaint calls about Farmington property owners violating city code in regards to property upkeep, the Farmington City Council voted unanimously June 5 to approve a cost recovery fee program.

Farmington city staff receive complaints about city code violations such as residents parking vehicles on grass, improper storage of refuse or garbage, unlicensed and inoperable vehicles, sign violations and general property maintenance tend to be most common. During the winter months, residents may call because neighbors are not shoveling sidewalks.

Adam Kienberger, city community development director, said the city spends time addressing the complaint calls and investigating concerns. The city staff came together to review the current code enforcement process and develop a proactive, comprehensive strategy.

"Historically, we have done code enforcement on a reactionary basis when we receive a complaint from a resident, and because of the staffing we have and a priority list that we follow in doing our code enforcement," Kienberger said. "When a complaint is received, staff make an initial inspection and if a violation is found, a written notice is sent to the property owner and they have 10 days to remedy the violation."

Upon re-inspection, if the violation is still present then another written notice is sent out giving a property owner an additional 10 days to remedy the violation. If the code violation is still present, Kienberger said there is no other recourse established except through legal proceedings outside of another letter asking for the residents to stop the code violation.

"At the end of the day, the whole reason is to end the code violation," Kienberger said, adding how properties need to be well maintained and that is just part of the city code.

Cost recovery fee

"In an effort to resolve violations and cover staff time, a cost recovery fee is proposed for the amount of staff time involved with re-inspections of the property and sending written notices," Kienberger said.

Staff evaluated how long it look to address each violation and found it took roughly an average of 45 minutes of staff time. The staff time is devoted to inspection, administrative office time with letter preparation and mailing.

In the past month, the city of Farmington has received 11 violations and four violations required a second letter be sent. The cost recovery fee is now effective after the council approved it and the $30 fee will begin being accrued with the second inspection if the violation has not been resolved.

Kienberger further explained a code violation scenario. For example, if the first letter is mailed out for improperly parking a vehicle on the grass, the resident will have 10 days to fix it before the city returns to re-inspect the violation. If the car is not removed after the second inspection, the city will charge the $30 fee.

Similar to when city water and utility bills are not paid promptly, the property can be assessed a fee under Minnesota state statute. The property owner will be advised of the potential fee in the first notification letter. The property will continue to be re-inspected and a fee charged every 10 days until the violation is resolved.

If the Farmington resident does not pay the fees, the amount would be assessed to the property.

"The intent of this isn't to penalize people, it is to solve these code violations in the community where we receive more complaints about it from our residents," Kienberger said.

The cost recovery fee of $30 will be added to the city fee schedule and will be a re-occurring fee, depending on the number of re-inspections required.

The city council directed city staff to work to become more proactive with the city's new code enforcement and move forward with conducting a public awareness campaign.

Council discussion

Mayor Todd Larson asked what percentage of violations need to have a second letter sent regarding property code violations.

Kienberger said city staff work with residents to better gain an understanding and solve most violations, adding how 80 percent of violations are remedied right away.

"Most times, it is rather a harmless violation," Kienberger said.

Many times residents say they are not aware they are violating city code and most times residents are reasonable and cooperative. "Eight or nine times out of 10 they are taken care of within 10 days," Kienberger said.

Larson asked if residents do not believe they are doing anything wrong or do they ignore the letters. The city can take legal action although the city attorney prefers not to take it that far.

"We hear from neighbors who just want it to be fixed, they want the lawn moved, they want the debris to be hauled away and they want it to be fixed, and that is how the process is set up to drive towards a resolution," Kienberger said.

Council member Jason Bartholomay asked how neighboring cities address code violation challenges.

Kienberger said cities address the challenges in different ways, depending on the city's size, council priorities, level of activity and approach to enforcement.

Some cities hire a full-time complaint officer, but Kienberger does not recommend that solution at this point.

"We have a reactive, strict complaint driven process with emails and phone calls like my neighbor parked his RV next to my house and it has fallen in the mud," Kienberger said.

Bartholomay prefers the city take a proactive approach and said he believes city staff should review concerns about property in the winter months when residents violate city code such as parking boats in front yards.

"It will be interesting to see how this plays out and what kind of reaction when we hear back from you to see if people clean up their act or we may have to take a different tact as time goes on," said Robyn Craig, city council member.

Now moving forward with the public awareness campaign, the city staff now have teeth and can enforce the rules for those who choose the abuse the situation and choose not to clean up the community, Kienberger said.

Katie Bernjelm said prefers the city take a proactive way to enforcement, but she questioned if it may make more sense for the city to fine right away because it may be a waste of city staff's time. She said what if residents move their parked car off the grass before the tenth day and then move the car back to the grass on the eleventh day.

Kienberger said the approach to addressing the code violations is more of an art than a science, but this new fee schedule will help city staff because it gives them a mechanism to enforce the violations.

"There are always those who are working around the system," Kienberger said. "It is truly a re-inspection fee because some grace period and the nice thing about this is code enforcement is very adaptable when a community needs change and it works well and maybe it is not working well, the council can scale it down," he added.

Council member Terry Donnelly asked if a $30 fee is enough compensation. He voiced how perhaps the city should consider a higher fee to act as more of an incentive for property owners instead of implementing a recovery program. Donnelly compared the incentive of speeding tickets that certainly serve as an incentive to obey roadway laws.

The council may engage in further discussion after reviewing how the program is received from the public.

"We are looking to engage the public and we are not looking to penalize and it is not a punitive type of thing," Kienberger said.

After the council unanimously approved and adopted the code enforcement recovery program of $30, Farmington City Administrator David McKnight advised the city council members how they will receive complaints from city residents.

"We are getting complaints now," Donnelly said.

McKnight added he appreciated backing from the city council on this issue.

"The violations are real and they are violating the code and that is part of living in Farmington," Craig said.

McKnight added how the ultimate goal is for Farmington properties to be in compliance.