CHRIS JENNINGS/HERALD DEMOCRAT
Illegal dumping is a code violation Sherman’s Environmental Code Department deals with regularly. Piles of trash including dead fish and discarded tires could be seen on Gribble Street Saturday afternoon.
Sherman’s Environmental Code Department works to maintain a safe and desirable living environment in the city by helping enforce 22 city ordinances and three health and safety codes. The department’s most frequent code violations range from trash and debris in yards to substandard structures and zoning issues.
Most of the code violations investigated by the department are received on the city’s Action 300 line, 903-892-7300. In 2012, the department received 2,376 calls.
“That’s five calls a day for each of our two inspectors,” City Engineer Clay Barnett told the City Council during a recent presentation on the department. “When they receive a call, the first thing they do is go out on a property visit.”
Environmental Code Inspector Andreas Liss or Code Enforcement Officer Sheila Renner then determines whether the property meets the city’s code. When it does, there’s no further action needed, but Barnett explained that only happens for about 10 percent of calls.
Calls where no action is needed usually involve a disagreement between neighbors, Barnett said. For the around 90 percent of calls that do have a violation, the inspectors document the violation with pictures before returning to the office for property research to send out a notice of violation.
“Property research sounds a lot easier than it actually is,” Barnett explained. “Most of the time, these properties are rental properties. The owners are hard to get in touch with except for around tax time — they want their tax bill, and other than that they don’t want to be bothered.”
Because current tenants don’t always update the information for utilities, contacting them also proves problematic at times. The city sent out 2,120 notices of violation in 2012. The owner or residents are given two weeks to comply with the code or ordinance before inspectors return for a second visit. Barnett said about 90 percent of the people who receive notices of violation comply with the ordinances noted.
“They go out and mow the grass, they get rid of their couch off the front porch, what have you,” the city engineer said.
The second notice of violation states that a fine will follow if the issue isn’t fixed and the city has to intervene. It is sent out by the city attorney’s office through certified mail.
“They send them a copy of the ordinance, so that’s the reason why we do get a little more compliance for the second notice than the first notice,” Barnett said.
For those that still haven’t complied by the third visit, the inspectors start a new process.
“We go out if it’s unoccupied — which is the majority of them — and we have to abate those,” Barnett said. “We put a lein against that property, and there was 170 of those last year. After that, we just go ahead and mow their property. We spend $30,000 — hard cost, just money given to contractors — to mow those each year.”
If people are occupying the house, they’re issued a citation and have a notice to appear in court. They have two weeks to call and set up a court case.
“We had 26 court cases last year,” Barnett explained. “Out of those we had 10 people who didn’t even bother to show up, which is an issue because then we have to go and issue a failure to appear. Most of those folks don’t live in Sherman, some of them don’t even live in Texas, and there’s a few of them that don’t even live in the United States.”
In addition to preparing for the city’s court cases, Liss and Renner oversee the work done on abatements. They make sure contractors are paid and do the work for which they were hired.
“Our inspectors spend about two hours a day dealing with these people who just completely don’t want to comply with our rules,” Barnett said.
The city engineer explained that most people set their court date for about a month out from the time they’re required to call. When they do appear in court, the judge will usually fine them and give them 10 days to comply. The amount of time between the initial report of a violation until the end of the judge’s 10 days is usually over three months to get a property cleaned up.
“That process was followed on 26 properties last year,” Barnett said. “So when you have an issue and you think that nothing’s being done on it, it’s somewhere in this process.”
Sherman Mayor Cary Wacker and City Manager George Olson requested the presentation to educate the City Council, and the public, on code enforcement.
“It’s important that we do these because many of these issues that are called in are health and safety issues for the public in our neighborhoods,” Wacker said “We appreciate the work and the work of the staff.”