DENISON — The city of Denison is considering a plan that would increase the presence of code enforcement in low- to moderate-income areas of the city.
“Just because it’s low to moderate income doesn’t mean it has to be trashy, and we have a lot of trashy,” said Denison City Manager Robert Hanna. “Part of that is because we as a community have said that’s acceptable.”
The change is a function of a reorganization the Denison City Council discussed last week. Community Development Director Tom Speakman plans to retire in a year.
“Whenever a director retires, I think you’ve got to ask yourself is the organization structured the way I want it to be structured, … and there are some changes I want to make to the way the organization is structured, particularly in how we handle development and how we interface with the development community,” Hanna said. “With Speakman’s retirement its going to free up personnel dollars to allow me to explore those options.”
With the exception of some additional duties that have been added in the past two years, the majority of Speakman’s time has been spent managing the Community Development Block Grant program. The funds from that are used primarily for minor and emergency rehab for low- to moderate-income residents. Additionally, a portion is used to fund the director’s salary.
Hanna said the majority of the work of managing the CDBG program is administrative and doesn’t necessarily need the attention of a director. So the city’s plan is to switch those duties to a lower-level employee and use some the administrative budget of the grant to fund an additional code enforcement officer.
“It’s a pretty innovative way to leverage federal dollars,” said Mayor Jared Johnson.
The new code enforcement officer, who will be the city’s third code enforcement officer, will have to work primarily in low- to moderate-income areas of Denison since CDBG money must be spent only in those areas. Hanna said the city plans to pay for approximately 10 percent of the salary from the general fund, so the code enforcement officer will have a little flexibility.
Hanna did caution the Council that the city’s CDBG funding has been declining over the years and will likely continue to decline, so the city may end up spending more from the general fund for the position in future years. Currently the general fund cost of the position is estimated to be $5,000.
The new position still needs final approval from the Council, which will likely happen Monday. Councilors discussed the new position during a work session last week and seemed agreeable to the idea.
“If you drive around town, one of the challenges we have is blight, … and we don’t have enough boots on the ground to deal with those problems,” Hanna said.
He said the city still plans to use much of the CDBG money for minor and emergency rehab. The city has a multi-year waiting list for such uses.
“We could double our CDBG funding and we’d still have a list that would take years to get through,” Hanna said. “So at some point in time you say, ‘This isn’t effective. What we’re doing isn’t effective.’ So we can continue to add to the list and see the same results, or you can try something new.”
Hanna said the additional code enforcement officer is an effort to raise whole neighborhoods not just a single residence. “We can impact long-term change that is going to help elevate portions of the town,” he said.
Explaining exactly how a new code enforcement officer will benefit low- to moderate-income neighborhoods, Hanna said deterioration in those neighborhood can create momentum, though not in a positive direction. It’s called the “Broken Windows Theory.” Introduced by social scientist James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, the theory goes that if graffiti and broken windows are left unaddressed, that can make disrepair the norm, eventually creating an environment that encourages crime.
Conversely, Hanna said, requiring homes to stay up to code creates positive momentum in a neighborhood — one resident makes repairs and improvement, then a neighbor, then the neighbor’s neighbor, and so on. Hanna said, in the end that can attract new residents to the area and increase property values in the long run.
He stressed that can mean a decrease in the city’s tax rate.
“One of the reasons our tax rate is higher than everybody else’s is our appraised values are so low,” Hanna said.
Once the Council gives the final go-ahead, Hanna said the city will move quickly to fill the position.
“I think what you see the (Denison City) Council saying and the community saying is, ‘We’ve had enough, and we need to start taking care of our community,’” he said. “No one else is going to do it but us.”