A community rights organization is accusing the city of ignoring a city ordinance approved last year. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, devised and lobbied for the ordinance, which outlines new fines and fees against homeowners who do not register and maintain vacant property.
The ordinance demands that owners of vacant buildings pay an annual registration fee of $50 for the first year, and $70 for each subsequent year the building remains vacant.
ACORN head organizer Sonya Murphy said the city is hurting city residents' property values by not enforcing the ordinance.
"This ordinance mirrors successful ordinances like the one in Chicago. … At $50 (the first year) and $70 every year after that, the city stands to make money just enforcing the ordinance on one house. We've got hundreds of vacant houses," Murphy said. "Why wouldn't they enforce it?"
Code Enforcement Manager Joe Lewis said he doesn't have the manpower. "I only have nine code enforcement officers—three of which are paid through (Community Development Block Grant) funds, which could be eliminated at any time. I need, at the minimum, 32 officers. Right now, if I was to dedicate my nine people to going out and finding every vacant structure where the owners have not called in for the inspection and file misdemeanor affidavits against them, we wouldn't get anything else done," Lewis said.
Recently, Lewis made that same argument to the council.
"What I'd like for you to do is tell us what you need," said Ward 2 Councilman Leslie McLemore. "Tell us what you need, and we'll do what we can to get it to you."
Council President Ben Allen said the council might encourage the mayor to tweak the budget this year to hire more code enforcement people.
"It's not that the money isn't there. It's where you prioritize your money. This needs to be top priority. You're either going to spend the money now or spend it later in the form of lost tax revenues," he said.
At a recent Battlefield Neighborhood Association meeting, Councilman Marshand Crisler said that it was the mayor's job to present proposals for more officers. "The council gets to hold the money, but it's up to the mayor to suggest where we put it, and right now, the mayor's office isn't telling us to put it anywhere," Crisler said. "I haven't seen a proposal for police pay raises or anything coming out of Melton."
Melton recently told reporters that code enforcement did not need any more officers.
"I disagree," Melton said. "I think it's a lack of passion. I don't think there are any rules in the book that say you can't work on Saturday and Sunday. You can work on Sunday, after church."
Murphy called Melton's assessment "ridiculous," and added that funding the division shouldn't be such a painful issue. The ordinance, she said, is self-sustaining through the new revenue it generates.
The city of Chicago successfully enacted a similar ordinance in 2000, requiring vacant property owners to file a $50 registration statement with the city—with the money going strictly to administration costs. In addition, owners have to purchase liability insurance of at least $300,000 for each vacant residential building and a minimum of $1 million for each commercial or industrial building. Penalties for non-compliance range from $200 to $1,000 a day for each offense.
Lewis insists that the mayor's priority is on demolition. "Demolition solves the vacant building problem in its own way," Lewis said.
But demolition costs a lot more than code enforcement, insists Jackson resident and ACORN member Lucilla Turner Robinson.
"I don't understand how tearing down a building for thousands of dollars instead of charging (violators) fees and misdemeanor fines is more cost effective," Robinson said. "One (method) makes money. The other costs money. If you do one you don't have to resort to the other."
Robinson's neighbors say demolition is also slow and does not address immediate problems like the stench of a busted sewer line under the rental house at 1974 Shady Lane. Hinds County tax rolls show the property as owned by AD Properties LLC. Renter Willie Brown, who lives at the address, said his landlord, Alcindor Brown, refuses to fix the sewer.
When contacted, "Al" Brown denied any connection with the property, though Willie Brown's rental agreement bears Brown's signature. "I don't know anything about that property. I remember selling that property to some other people," he said. Brown said he did not recall the name of the buyer.
Allen said absentee landlords are destroying neighborhoods. "I'm sitting here watching neighborhoods deteriorate in my own ward because of rental housing owned by people who don't even live in Jackson," Allen said. "Look, this isn't rocket science. Other communities don't have this problem because they enforce the ordinance."