City eyes higher fines for code violations

City eyes higher fines for code violations

June 6th, 2011 by Cliff Hightower in News

WHAT IT MEANS


A Tennessee law allows cities and towns to get around a constitutional limit of $50 fines for violation of city codes. Here's how it works:

• Cities pass ordinances setting up administrative hearing officers or allowing administrative law judges to oversee code violation cases.

• Hearing officers or judges could levy fines up to $500 per violation.

• The fines would have to be for building and property maintenance violations such as overgrown lawns and abandoned cars in front lawns.

Source: Tennessee General Assembly

Just behind Ruby Green's home is a yard with knee-high grass. Up and down her street, she said, she sees lawns overgrown and not kept up.

Green, the president of the Cedar Hills Neighborhood Association, said she wants her neighborhood to be better. But it's hard when the most the city can fine for code violations is $50, she said.

"That's too little," Green said. "They laugh at $50. They don't care."

That could change. A state law enacted last year allows cities to establish administrative hearing officers who can levy fines up to $500 per violation for residences and $500 a day for nonresidential properties.

Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said the administration is very interested. Nashville and some surrounding cities already are implementing the program. Beeland said the city needs to follow suit.

"We have properties all over the city derelict, and we can't do anything over $50," he said.

Beeland said the City Council soon could start looking at enacting an ordinance establishing its own administrative hearing officer. He said the city wants to try to implement the new law "as soon as possible."

Now, violators go before City Court where they can be fined $50. The fine is written into the state's Constitution and cannot be changed except by referendum.

City Judge Russell Bean said that a few years ago voters rejected a proposal to change the state Constitution and increase the fine.

He said he sees this as a backdoor way to get it through because legislators couldn't get it through the front door. He said he is afraid such a law "waters down" the court process and allows too much power for nonelected officials.

He fears that legislators could start setting up hearing officers for anything.

"What's going to happen next?" he asked. "Are they going to do animals next?"

Linda Richards, president of the East Lake Neighborhood Association, sees it differently.

"It would bring the neighborhood back up," she said.

She said throughout her neighborhood there are absentee landlords letting their properties go to pot. The $500 fine would get their attention, she said.

City Attorney Mike McMahan said there could be a challenge in court over whether the fines violate the Constitution. But he said most civil penalties in Tennessee have been upheld by the court system.

"My gut reaction is that it would be upheld," he said.

Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd said last week she's interested. But she said she also wants to know more about the program.

There are violators who don't care about the $50 fine, she said. They come in, pay their fine and keep violating. A $500 fine could help, she said.

"Fifty dollars is just not effective," she said. "You need something more to get their attention."