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The original item was published from 11/3/2014 8:58:24 AM to 11/18/2014 12:05:01 AM.

News Flash

Butte-Silver Bow

Posted on: November 3, 2014

[ARCHIVED] Making a difference: Code enforcement paying off

Crumbling buildings. Vacant properties. Absent owners.

Houses with falling-in roofs and falling-off porches. Yards filled with trash and junk that’s sometimes hidden in weeds waist high or higher.

The problem is nothing new in Butte or most sizable cities in the U.S., but it is exacerbated here. Butte was built for and once home to at least twice as many people as there are living here today.

Most folks care, but not everyone.

“I think the biggest depreciation of value in this town is due to some owners who don’t take care of their properties,” said Butte businessman Ron Ueland, who helped turn the Metals Bank Building into a restaurant, office and condo apartments.

Butte-Silver Bow government has been wrestling with the problem for years and years, but it is now taking a harder stand on enforcing its own decay ordinances.

“We are being incredibly aggressive but we are being fair,” said Ed Randall, Butte-Silver Bow’s Community Enrichment director.

“We decided to treat everyone equal,” he said. “We weren’t going to ask anyone in one part of town to do anything different than someone in another part of town. People might be upset, but we were going to be fair.”

The more aggressive action started in early July. Not everyone in town is on board, of course, and there are years of work ahead.

But in the past four months, county officials say many people have painted their houses, fixed their roofs and mended their fences. They have removed old tires, picked up their yards and filled dumpsters the county placed temporarily in neighborhoods.

Fred Birch, who has purchased and renovated several properties in Butte over the past 15 years, says he likes what he sees.

“They are doing the things that a small town, especially a town like Butte that has had a lot of blight, should be doing,” Birch said. “I’m really excited about it. The town is finally getting somewhere.”

Origins of change

The “aggressive approach” – a phrase county officials aren’t shy about using now – didn’t occur overnight.

It stems from efforts Chief Executive Matt Vincent began pursuing shortly after taking office in January 2013. He notes that under the powers and duties of the chief executive in the city-county charter, the very first responsibility listed is to be “accountable for coordinating all community enrichment activities.”

To get a scope of the problem, Vincent and commissioners agreed in 2013 to start by surveying properties in Butte, including vacant houses and buildings.

“Vacant buildings are probably at the highest risk of dilapidation,” Vincent said.

The county hired Travis Eskelsen on a temporary basis and from June to December 2013, he did an outside, visual survey of most properties in Butte, documenting those with badly peeling paint or sinking porches or poor roofs or junk-filled yards.

In some cases, single properties had all those check marks and more.

“I basically walked every single street within the city and looked at every single property,” Eskelsen said.

The county identified 115 houses or other properties in the Butte area as being in poor or unsound condition and in need of immediate repairs or cleanup. Another 114 needed fixing in the immediate future.

The follow-through

The county sent letters to owners of 220 of those properties pointing out ordinance violations and what needed to be done. They were given five to 10 days to contact the enrichment department.

They went further, meeting owners on their properties to go over the problems and talk solutions.

In early August, the county hired two new code enforcement officers – one to replace an officer who resigned and another to fill a newly created position. Money for a vacant slot at animal control was shifted to community enrichment to pay for the extra officer.

Eskelsen, who had conducted the inventory, and Bob Lazzari started Aug. 12 and spent their first week reading and becoming familiar with county decay and zoning ordinances.

They have worked with other county departments, including planning and the county attorney’s office, and learned of all the public and private financial resources available to help people get new windows or other materials.

“We try to do everything we can beforehand to help them out, but you can’t help someone who is not willing to help themselves,” Eskelsen said. “We realize there are a lot of people in poverty and they can’t afford a lot of materials, but the number one thing we expect is sweat equity.”

They put some of their own sweat into the job as well.

As an example, they recently spent an afternoon cleaning up a junk-filled and weed-infested yard by a vacant house at the corner of Walnut Street and Continental Drive. The county took possession of the house for delinquent taxes and sold it at auction last month.

Owners are given timelines to address problems. Sometimes it’s 30 days, sometimes 45 days, sometimes a little longer depending on the repairs needed and their financial situation.

“We try to be as cordial as possible and say, ‘You need to do this or that,’” Lazzari said.

They have done the same for violations spotted on properties not on the inventory list.

About 80 percent of owners who got letters have met with county officials so far, and Eskelsen said about 80 percent of them have been great and responded with repairs.

The department has not fined anyone on the list so far, but Randall says they are getting close to that with several owners. And they won’t be light, Randall said.

Read the full story in the Montana Standard
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