“The scope of what we do is so broad … We deal with grass, we deal with junk vehicles, we deal with garbage, trash, illegal dumping and the list goes on and on,” city codes enforcement officer Joel Prince said. “And it gets into zoning because of all of the signs [people put in the right of way].”
The codes enforced by the officers are outlined in the Cleveland Municipal Code, chapters 13, 9 and 5.
Much of the work generated for the two-man division within the Cleveland Police Department comes from complaint calls.
The officers handle 20 to 30 complaint calls a week.
Prince said he and fellow codes enforcement officer Criss Caywood “are also proactive,” meaning that when they respond to a complaint call they also look for other issues in the area.
The officers research the situation before they write any citations.
Prince said when a call is received an officer will go to the site, identify any code violations and speak with the person living at the address.
“Typically a citation is issued to Municipal Court,” Prince said. “That way, we have a record of the complaint. We have a record that there was a violation. It is kind of accountability to the property owner that they are going to have to take care of it by that court date.”
He said often the first citation can serve more as a warning.
Many issues can be taken care of without ever going to court. If residents are told their grass is too high and they cut their grass, that is usually the end of the situation.
“We try to treat everybody the same and be equal,” Prince said.
Caywood said if the issue reaches a point where a property is not being cleaned up or an issue is not being taken care of, even after a second city citation and a state citation, then the property owner faces the possibility of the city becoming involved.
Costs for the cleanup are assessed to the property owner in the form of a lien that must be paid when the property taxes are due. The fee can be as high as $1,200.
“That’s not including that we are proactive, that we are out every morning just canvassing the areas we think there may be issues in,” Prince said.
Prince said people are usually cooperative when officers bring a violation to their attention.
“If, after two city citations, we’ve not gotten any compliance or nobody is doing anything, then we will write them to state environmental court,” Prince said. “There are penalties for codes violations. Environmental issues are a lot stiffer.”
The size of the fine depends on the severity of the violation. Prince said violators in environmental court could face jail time for serious code violations.
“It kind of depends on the severity of the problems and how many times we have brought them to Municipal Court,” Prince said.
Caywood said the citation letter lists the codes that were violated, but also explains the issue with a plainly worded description.
During the summer, the most common complaint call is about neighbors with tall grass. City code states that grass cannot be taller than 12 inches. Garbage and trash piling up are more common complaints the office receives in the winter. Compliance officers also deals with issues of illegal dumping.
The office addresses property maintenance codes, but not building codes. This means most of the issues they address pertain to the exterior of a house.
Many times when the officers come in for the day, they have a few calls that have been left for them since the previous day. He said some of these are people who have received a citation and want to know what they need to do. Sometimes a call requires both officers to respond. Most of the time, the officers can split up to investigate issues.
When issues arise at a rental property, the officers address the issue with the tenant first.
Prince said if the tenant cannot be found, the citation is issued to the property owner. Citation letters are mailed if the person is not home when the officers visit the property.
“We are constantly doing paperwork,” Prince said.
Each of the officers has a decade of experience in codes enforcement.
Prince was interested in a law enforcement career after serving in the Marines. He said code enforcement was the position that was available. Caywood came to the position after working in the Cleveland permitting office.
While the code is specific about a violation, it is also specific about what is not a violation. For example, Prince said the codes enforcement officers cannot prohibit outdoor grills. However, there are codes about immobile cars. Cars that do not run and are just sitting in someone’s yard present more than an eyesore for the community. These cars can also create environmental issues if oil leaks seep into the soil or ground water.
“What we are dealing with is screened from public view,” Prince said.
He said it is allowable for owners to hold on to a car that no longer runs as long as it is kept in a garage and out of public view.
Community awareness of the code is also a big part of their job, Caywood said. He said they do this by handing out information at local businesses and expos.
“People think, ‘It’s my property [and] I can do what I want ...’ [but that is not always true],” Caywood stressed.
Prince said officers treat everyone equally, but try to be sensitive to the fact “... that some people are just having a tough time.”
In situations where people are truly having a hard time and cannot afford help, Caywood said the officers work with area nonprofits to provide assistance in cleaning properties.
They also reinforce the city ordinance that states yard sales can only be held Thursday through Sunday.
The Codes Division does not enforce individual subdivision regulations.