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After complaint, city outlines code process

Altoona’s Department of Codes and Inspections has been enforcing the property maintenance code more strictly with homes than with commercial buildings downtown, a resident alleged at a recent City Council meeting.

The city’s codes director denied the allegation before proceeding to explain details of Altoona’s code enforcement regimen.

Officers have been going after his daughter to paint one side of a house before she can rent or sell, even as it has allowed downtown buildings to languish in far worse condition than his daughter’s house for a long time, William Bartley told council.

“I think that’s discriminating,” Bartley said. “They should fix their buildings up, too.”

In response to Bartley’s complaint, which he had made to the codes office prior to coming to council, officers have reviewed the cases of the downtown buildings Bartley was referring to, according to Rebecca Brown, the department director.

There are notices of violation on about half a dozen, with two cases scheduled for hearings and three cases ongoing for at least a year, Brown said.

The longevity of code issues for particular properties doesn’t reflect departmental inaction, but rather, the nature of enforcement methods the city must use and the level of cooperation and resources of property owners, Brown said.

It can get complicated.

When officers become aware of a problem, they mail a notice of violation, which includes a deadline for compliance, usually 30 to 45 days, except for conditions that create an imminent hazard, Brown said.

Some violations require permits for the work required to correct those violations, she said.

Officers reinspect for compliance after the expiration of the allotted time to learn whether the owner has begun work or obtained a permit, she said.

They reinspect every seven to 10 days thereafter, and if owners still haven’t begun work or at least obtained permits following the third such reinspection, officers file citations with a magisterial district judge, Brown said.

The judge then schedules a hearing, usually for two or three months after the filing of a citation, Brown said.

The hearings are held in “code court,” one Thursday per month, with Magisterial District Judge Daniel DeAntonio hearing cases from his territory in his courtroom in the morning and Magisterial District Judge Benjamin Jones hearing cases from his territory in his courtroom in the afternoon.

When the city obtains two guilty verdicts on the same summary violation, or if an owner is not making a reasonable attempt to eliminate a public health or safety risk or a public nuisance, the city can file misdemeanor charges, city solicitor Dan Stants said.

Misdemeanor convictions obtained after two summary convictions are of the second degree, with the possibility of three years in jail, Stants said.

Misdemeanor convictions obtained after three or more summary convictions are of the first degree, with the possibility of five years in jail, he said. Misdemeanor fines are also potentially much higher than those for summary offenses.

The public health and safety risk or public nuisance that would underlie an attempt to obtain a misdemeanor conviction needs to be serious, according to Stants.

The city wouldn’t attempt to obtain a misdemeanor conviction for a property owner who failed to cut the grass, he said, but it might do so for an owner who didn’t seek to complete demolition of a half-burned house whose rubble presented a hazard and a nuisance or for accumulations of garbage that can attract rats.

So far, the city has tried for misdemeanor convictions in two code cases, Stants said.

It obtained a conviction against an owner who had let garbage accumulate in her yard, attracting rats, he said.

It dropped an effort to obtain one against a church organization responsible for the former Prince of Peace Church building near the Altoona Area Junior High School in favor of using city resources to demolish the building, as the effort to hold the organization accountable had proven “non-productive” and the building was in danger of collapsing, Stants said.

In a third case, the Blair County District Attorney’s Office didn’t approve going after a misdemeanor conviction, Stants said.

The DA’s office actually prosecutes the misdemeanor cases, Stants said.

There are currently no misdemeanor cases pending, “but a few might be filed in the not-too-distant future,” Stants said.

“We have about a half-dozen we’d like to start with,” Brown said.

The attempts to obtain misdemeanor convictions are reserved for the “really bad situations,” Stants said. “The last-resort kind.”

Sometimes, the city and defendants negotiate deals before scheduled hearings by which the defendant enters a provisional guilty plea, with a deadline to fix the problem and a reduced or eliminated fine — with a full-scale fine if the defendant fails to correct the problem by the deadline, Stants said.

In such cases, the hearing doesn’t occur, Stants said.

Absentee owners are the biggest codes challenge, because of appearance and notification issues, according to Brown.

Sometimes, they don’t show up for hearings because a judge hasn’t succeeded in notifying them.

Normally the judge’s office sends a summons by regular mail, then, if a defendant fails to show for a hearing, the office sends a summons by certified mail, Stants said.

Sometimes notification failures occur because the address information held by the county is out-of-date, because the owner has moved and hasn’t notified the county of the address change, Stants said.

Sometimes, notification failures occur because the owner may decline to accept certified mail, figuring it’s almost certain to be “bad news,” Stants said.

If certified mail doesn’t produce the defendant, the judge may issue an arrest warrant, to be executed by a constable, who has authority throughout the state, Stants said.

Executing those warrants is how constables get paid, Stants said.

But not all arrest warrants are successfully executed.

It sometimes might not make sense for judges to issue arrest warrants when it’s clear that owners aren’t living at the only known address available, Stants said.

“Sometimes, properties are stuck in (a) holding pattern,” Brown said. “In limbo.”

Those are often the ones that end up in the county’s tax sales, she said.

The city doesn’t get rich off citation fees, Stants said.

It would rather owners use their resources to keep their properties in good condition than to pay the fines and penalties, Brown said.

Still, there are owners who “just don’t care,” leaving the city no choice but to push for penalties, Brown said.

“(Still) once it goes to a misdemeanor charge, we usually achieve compliance,” Brown said.

There are currently 900 “open” notices of violation, Brown said.

Among those, there are 235 summary citations, representing cases where the owners haven’t been cooperative, she said.

Among the 900 violation notices, 315 are for needed repairs, 250 are for high grass or other overgrowth and 115 are for accumulated trash or garbage, Brown said. The others are for failure to register vacant properties, failure to register rental properties, tree issues and other miscellaneous matters, Brown said.

“The city always tries to work something out,” Stants said. “We’re mainly looking for people to comply.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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