County eyes nuisances

Property owners with messy, trashy or junky properties, beware. The Board of Supervisors has requested that county staff look into creating an abatement ordinance to handle untidy neighbors.

The idea behind the ordinance is to allow the county to go onto the property, after repeated requests and court action, clean it and charge the property owner for the work.

Supervisor Tom Sockwell brought the item to the Board's attention during the Oct. 1 meeting.

"We continually have problems with people (not) cleaning up their properties even after they've been taken to court," he said, and it seemed to be particularly true of absentee owners, he added.

Sockwell wanted staff to look into an abatement program so that the county "could hold the hammer over someone's head until they get it done."

"The problem is there is no real budget to pick up peoples' trash," Supervisor Pete Byers said. "The county is not like the city. The city has a way to put a trash can in front of every house. There's not a way that we can force any company or anyone to do that."

Byers said the county has cited people and taken them to jail and taken a number of other actions, but people just keep throwing their trash over the fence.

"Really, we have been doing quite a bit more than people think," he said. "They are fined and they are fined and they are fined. Actually, when they go to court they give them a fine, they walk out the door and never collect it. So basically the fine doesn't really mean a whole lot."

County Planning & Zoning Director Christine Ballard said her department currently has four inspectors on staff; each with a caseload between 100 to 200 - not including the Arizona Strip area.

Around 10 to 15 percent of the cases end up in court, she said. The county sends the property owner a letter asking them to clean up the property within 30 days. If the owner attempts to comply with the letter, then the county can give owners another 30 days to clean up the messes.

If the owner refuses and the case is severe enough, the county sends another letter warning them that the county is filing against them in court in two to four weeks.

Once the issue hits the court, P&Z is no longer in control of the situation, Ballard said. The County Attorney's Office retains the right to prosecute or dismiss the charge.

If it does reach the court and the owner is found guilty or pleads guilty, the court often levies a fine and then suspends it in order to give the owner time to clean up the property.

Some do, some don't and pay the fine, and some don't clean up or pay the fine.

Other owners don't even show up for the sentencing, Ballard said. P&Z can ask the court to bring back violators, but some don't even bother to show up.

"We're at a loss to do much of anything. At that point in time we've sort of used our baseball bat, and at that point in time we really don't have an effective method other than to refile in court," Ballard said.

"I find it not to be a priority of the County Attorney's Office," Byers said. "And I can understand that because they are trying to prosecute killers and such, but to me it's an important thing that needs to be prosecuted.

"We can't become the personal garbage service for [Birdland]. There are good people that put garbage service in their yard and then there (are) the others that don't, and they dump it in each other's yard and they dump it in the desert or they don't take it anywhere and leave it in the yard. We just don't have enough manpower or money to clean up after some of them."

County Environmental Health Manager Rachel Patterson said her department responds to complaints that are filed. If a complaint isn't filed the department may not respond, she said.

"We don't make a habit of driving through neighborhoods looking for places to go after," she said.

When the Department follows up on a call and finds a valid complaint, the property owner is given 15 days to correct the violation. If they don't correct it a compliance order is issued. If they don't correct it after that, then it may end up in court where a fine can be assessed.

The Department is working on revising a current cleanup ordinance. The revision should let the Department assess the cost of the cleanup, along with the regular fee and time for inspection against the property owner, she said.

"These properties just continue to keep popping up. They ruin the property values of the other properties in the neighborhood," Sockwell said.

Supervisor Buster Johnson said the issue has been a problem since he was first in office. The health and P&Z departments have been dealing with the same people over and over again. Even if the Board created a new ordinance, they would still have to go through the same process with each violation, he said.

"But once it gets to the county attorney or the court system, that's where the problem is" and that's where the frustration for the health and P&Z departments is, he said.

Even if an owner comes to court, all they have to show is a $10 receipt for the dump to prove they've cleaned up the mess, when in reality they've only cleaned up part of it, Johnson said. And then the process has to start all over again.

The Board voted unanimously to direct staff toward creating a new abatement ordinance.