Over the past several months, local governments have incurred significant unplanned expenses due to the unprecedented, multi-faceted response required by not only COVID-19, but also civil unrest. At the same time, the League of California Cities estimates that municipalities across California are facing a $7 billion revenue shortfall over the next two years due to the impact of stay-at-home orders on business and tourism. As a result, the League reports that nine out of 10 California cities are considering cutting or furloughing city staff.
Last week, in California City, the City Council chose to leave vacant two code enforcement officer positions and, for all practical purposes, suspend code enforcement in the community.
Because law enforcement represents such a substantial general fund expense for many municipalities, it is an easy target when administrators are looking to cut back. Code enforcement personnel and nuisance abatement in general were on the chopping block during the great recession in the early 2000s.
However, by reducing code enforcement during a budget crisis, agencies can expose themselves to increased and long-term economic harm, according to Matthew Silver, Partner at Silver & Wright LLP.
“Code enforcement often is the first line item to be reduced or eliminated during a fiscal crisis,” says Silver. “This is a grave mistake, because code enforcement is central to the physical health and the financial health of cities, both in the present and in the future.”
Effective code enforcement not only combats blight, impacting property values and community identity, but also supports and enhances quality of life by maintaining and cultivating a clean, safe environment and healthy living and working conditions.
Cities should invest in code enforcement first and foremost, says Silver, because protecting communities is a fundamental role of public agencies: “There’s a moral as well as a legal obligation for cities and counties to provide for the health and safety of their residents,” he says.
Code enforcement officers play an important role in maintaining and improving a community’s well-being by responding to resident concerns and addressing complaints before they fester into bigger problems. The broken windows theory suggests that visible signs of crime and disorder create an environment that encourages further, escalating crime and disorder, not to mention blighted neighborhoods. By addressing gateway maintenance issues such as broken windows, poor lawn maintenance, or graffiti, code enforcement officers help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more dangerous problems. Amid a financial crisis, municipal and county code enforcement officers play a particularly essential role in addressing violations, as foreclosed and vacant properties become prevalent, and housing conditions likely deteriorate.
“According to the theory, one property with a ‘broken window’ may lead to another property with a ‘broken window’ and it deteriorates from there,” says Silver. “Before long, more properties in the neighborhood deteriorate, housing conditions worsen, property values drop, as well as property taxes, and, then, the community’s general fund. A reduction in the general fund affects resources like schools, parks, community aid, and services, including law enforcement and code enforcement. It’s a vicious cycle.”
As front-line responders, code enforcement officers often represent residents’ first interaction with their local government. Their face-to-face engagement can reassure residents that their voices are being heard and their concerns are being addressed. Moreover, code enforcement officers have the capacity to identify and support at-risk members of the community, such as seniors, children, and people who are disabled.
“I would like to think that the government is there to protect vulnerable populations who live in conditions that need to be addressed by their communities, and these conditions are likely to worsen during a recession,” says Silver. “Code enforcement deals with that, pure and simple.
“When there is uncertainty in the world,” he continues, “it becomes even more vital for cities to make their residents feel safe and cared for, and to ensure healthy and dignified housing.”
When funding is limited, code enforcement officers can connect their communities with volunteer groups as well as advocates, such as Habitat for Humanity, and financial assistance, such as grants or low-interest loans, to support monitoring and enforcing local rules and regulations and to address dilapidated and unsafe properties.
“Code enforcement is geared toward compliance,” says Silver. “If a resident wants to comply, code enforcement officers often can allocate resources and provide help for them to do so. For example, a city may pay for a dumpster into which the resident can dump their trash and debris or encourage a church group or volunteer group to assist.”
“I know that many cities have to make tough budget decisions,” says Silver, “but maintaining the code enforcement budget will actually protect the community, physically and fiscally, in the short and long term. Code enforcement will not only help protect the health and safety of the community, it will also help protect the property values that underpin a city’s ability to provide other important services to the community.”
Silver & Wright LLP attorneys deliver municipal legal services, specializing in receiverships, nuisance abatement, public safety, and lawsuit defense. Leveraging their unique experience, cutting-edge legal concepts, and effective use of existing laws, they help cities and counties throughout California increase public safety, combat blight, and save funds. Silver & Wright LLP’s passion for code enforcement is reflected in their volunteer service and legislative advocacy.