Gripes about lots

From tall grass and weeds to broken sidewalks and junk cars, the city of Marietta receives hundreds of property maintenance complaints every year.

All of those complaints are investigated and most legitimate issues are resolved in a timely manner, according to Beth Tullius, one of three people with the city’s environmental health division who investigate the complaints.

“After a complaint is filed we try to do an investigation within three days,” Tullius said. “We take photos of the property and determine whether there’s a legitimate problem or not.”

Information on property complaints is available to the general public, thanks to open record laws, which are being touted during Sunshine Week this week, to help raise public awareness about open government.

Tullius has a bank of cabinets filled with folders containing information about complaints that have been filed over the last few years.

“We’re required to keep those paper records for the last five years,” she said. “And all of this property complaint information is available to the public. Anyone can request information by coming into the health department office and giving me the address. I try to provide the information right away.”

Property complaints have been part of the conversation lately as Marietta City Council continues to consider legislation related to enforcement of the city’s property maintenance code.

Last fall council approved updating the city regulations to include the 2012 International Property Maintenance Code, an updated version of the 1998 IPMC the city previously followed. Council has also created a property maintenance department and a position for a maintenance code official who would handle property complaints.

Currently the complaints are filed with the environmental health section of the city’s health department.

If a complaint is filed and a property maintenance issue exists, a letter may be written by Tullius or another investigator to the property owner and signed by the city safety-service director before it’s sent out via certified mail, usually within a couple days of the investigation.

“Each certified letter costs us $6.97 to send, and that adds up if we receive a lot of complaints each year,” noted safety-service director Jonathan Hupp.

The letter contains a card that the property owner must mail back, acknowledging that the problem will be taken care of.

“If it’s a nuisance issue like cutting grass or weeds, they have five days after returning the card to address the issue,” Tullius said. For all other problems (property cleanup, sidewalk repairs, etc.) they’re given 15 days.”

Tullius said property owners will sometimes notify the city that they cannot do the required repairs within that 15-day window, and they may be granted an extension.

Once notified by the property owner that the problem has been resolved, another investigation of the property is conducted to verify the work has been done.

“If the weeds need cut or trash picked up and the property owner doesn’t take care of it, the city will have the work done and send the property owner the bill,” Hupp said. “If the city is not reimbursed, another letter is sent informing the owner that a lien will be filed against the property through the county auditor’s office.”

Nuisance complaints are handled by Tullius, sanitarian Kelly Miller, or environmental health director Gerald Gulley. Junk vehicle complaints are turned over to the city police department, and commercial building issues go to the city’s building enforcement board.

A total of 276 property complaints were filed with the Marietta Health Department in 2013, and 211 of those complaints were resolved. In 2012 there were 243 complaints filed and 193 were abated, according to Tullius, who maintains records on all of the property complaints.

Her records include the date the complaint was filed, as well as the address and problem. The property inspection date is also logged, along with the date the letter was sent to the property owner. If the problem is taken care of, it’s listed as abated. If not, the complaint is highlighted and a notation made that further action has been taken or is required.

“So far this month we’ve had 19 complaints. I’ve inspected all but two of those,” Tullius said. “Three of the complaints were commercial buildings and were turned over to the city’s building enforcement board. Out of the 19 complaints I have sent seven letters to property owners so far telling them to make the necessary repairs.”

Hupp said the city has this system in place to deal with property complaints, but there needs to be a better way to enforce violations of the city maintenance code than filing liens against properties.

“Right now that’s the only option if a property owner refuses to fix a problem,” he said. “The city will take care of it and then put a lien against the property. But major property maintenance issues are a straight-out violation of city code and should be treated as a criminal complaint.”

Hupp said if the city addresses the property issue and the property owner does not reimburse the cost to the city, the owner should understand he could be taken to court and made to pay the city, in addition to being liable for court costs.

Last month city council approved legislation setting penalties for violation of the property maintenance code, but the measure was vetoed by Mayor Joe Matthews who said some council members seemed confused about the legislation and he believed more work should be done on the law before the measure is passed.